Reading season is on baby! While we haven’t quite yet hit our maximum reading load (read 150 applications a week) we might as well be (currently assigned to 125 applications per week). So in the past few weeks I’ve read nearly 300 applications and I am once again reminded why essays can be the most awesome or the most tedious part of the read. I also realize that it is crunch time for those readers who are high school seniors and those essays need to be finished and submitted. So here are a few quick pointers to consider when composing your application essay.
- DO NOT write about someone else. This is not an essay, it’s a personal statement. You may be able to compose a wonderfully eloquent essay about your grandfather or sibling or best friend or teacher (or insert any other person not you in the blank) and at the end of reading it, I may want to admit your grandfather (sibling, best friend, teacher) but I haven’t learned anything new about you; YOU ARE THE APPLICANT! If you think about the composition as a personal statement chances are you will be writing about yourself and that will make for a far more interesting (or at least applicable) read.
- DO take a risk. Admittedly it may not pay off but those that do pay off in remarkable ways. Today I read a gritty, dark, and brooding essay about a very racy and even scandalous event in a young woman’s life but the essay was amazing, fantastic, awesome and the gutsiness of it added to its brilliance.
- DO NOT forget that your personal statement should have flow. I can’t count the number of times I’ve written disjointed on an application essay review so far. When the first paragraph talks about your personal appearance and the next one talks about your love of reading and the next one talks about your loyalty that personal statement is likely annoying to read.
- DO proofread. Are we going through your personal statements with a red pen? No. Are we indicating to our colleagues that you have made grammatical errors? Yes.
- DO NOT feel compelled to tackle a big topic. DO NOT feel like you have to condense your 17 or 18 years into 500 words. DO choose a topic that is small and uniquely you. Today I read an essay about the street on which an applicant grew up. Not a monstrous topic to tackle. And through reading it I learned about him, his family, his culture, and his upbringing. And it was that essay in fact that made me advocate for a student that might otherwise receive a less positive vote.
- DO avoid being cliche. Believe me, we know that going abroad changed your worldview and made you more open to diversity. We know that indigent and downtrodden people can be good and happy people and we know that you learned that lesson on a mission or service trip. We know that when an injury prevented you from participating on your sports team your senior year you learned the value of teamwork and cheerleading. If I can tell you what the rest of your essay says after reading the first paragraph, that’s not a good sign.
- DO NOT feel restricted to the typical five-paragraph essay. DO experiment with style, theme, and voice.
- DO remember that this is only one component of many. DO NOT succumb to undo self-induced pressure to write the next great American novel or the first Pulitzer-prize winning college application essay.
- DO NOT write an essay that hundreds of other applicants could write. At age 17 or 18 many of your experiences are similar (death of a grandparent, first time abroad, exposure to diversity, etc). DO pick a topic that is uniquely you and DO realize that I know this is easier for me to say than for you to do. DO browse a few of my previous blogs if you need further assistance or inspiration (yes that was a shameful plug).
- Finally, DO use your own voice to tell us a story. DO make us laugh (but only if you’re funny). DO make us cry (but only if it’s subtle and not a glaring attempt to get sympathy). DO show us some effort (I promise we can tell when your personal statement or optional essay was an after-thought). DO show us who you are and inspire us to admit you (after all that’s the desired result right?).
– Wendy Livingston
Categories: Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs
We Admit It! We are at a bit of a turning point regarding our optional submission. Don’t get me wrong, we really like the prompt:
Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments, what else makes you unique and colorful? We know that nobody fits neatly into 500 words or less, but you can provide us with some suggestion of the type of person you are. Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us, or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with an attitude.
Our prompt is a bit out-of-the-box. It’s original, it’s erudite, it’s quirky; it’s W&M. It was designed to allow our applicants to feel free to be out-of-the-box, original, erudite and quirky in their response to our prompt. We didn’t want them to feel constrained by the standard five-paragraph essay, formal writing style, or tired topics. What we worry about is that when combined with our video message (written by Associate Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admission Henry Broaddus and designed merely to show our prospective students that those reading their applications are humans and not autobots), the two together might put undue pressure on our applicants to go a bit overboard with their optional submission.
Honestly, the instances of overboard optionals are not overly commonplace. I would wager that over 90% of the optional submissions we receive come in the form of downloadable printed content (essays, poems, creative writing submissions, etc.). But sometimes we do get some crazy stuff rolling into this office in postal shipping containers the likes of which seem proportionally infeasible. We’ve gotten everything from footwear (representing that applicant’s proverbial foot in the door), to baked goods in the shape of famous campus landmarks (yes, we received a Rice-Krispee-treat Wren Building), to a used cast (no, I’m not making that up, someone actually sent us their used arm cast…I think we were all so grossed out we have forgotten what it was meant to symbolize). We’ve also gotten scrapbooks, videos, green-and-gold-striped pole vaults, jewelry and stuffed toys dressed up in W&M gear. These items likely take a great deal of time and money to create, an enormous sum to ship (as many students Fed Ex them), and more likely than not they do not have an enormous impact on the decision we make (this is not to say that we didn’t appreciate the effort but oftentimes the over-the-top submissions don’t provide us much substantive information about the applicant).
So the question is, are we pushing you too hard? Does our prompt unintentionally put more pressure on you to come up with something extraordinary rather than making you feel more relaxed about being yourself? If so, what’s the next step? Do we change the prompt or just the way we talk about it? Do we need to be more explicit about what we want and what we don’t want as a response? What did you do for your optional submission and what impact did you hope it would have on the Committee? Your feedback on this one (via the comments) would be greatly appreciated.
Wendy Livingston, ’03, M.Ed. ’09
Senior Assistant Dean of Admission
Categories: Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs