Here’s one way to think about the college admissions essay. The task of the essay is to sway admissions officers. Writing a good essay is like marketing a product. It requires that you appeal to the preferences of admissions officers (whatever those are) and that you present a crafted and manicured version of your self – one that gives you the best chance of getting in.
I call this the strategic approach. This admissions essay writing philosophy is based on two core premises:
The strategic approach has a seductive quality and is becoming more and more popular among high-achieving students and their parents. In a culture that values prestige and success, this approach offers what appears to be a sure-fire way of getting in to top institutions.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually work. It’s self-defeating because both of its core premises are false.
Take premise 1. Many savvy consultants and parents think they know what admissions officers want. But the reality is that each admissions officer has a unique set of preferences. Guessing what an admissions committee wants to hear is like guessing the right number on a roulette wheel. Sure, you might get lucky, but the odds are stacked against you.
Now consider premise 2. Talk to any admissions officer and they will tell you that they abhor overly crafted applications. They’re not interested in hearing from self-branded students. They’re much more interested in those who speak candidly about meaningful decisions, ideas, or experiences.
As Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Admissions at Yale, puts it:
“What concerns me…are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other.”
Brenzel helps illuminate the self-defeating nature of the strategic approach. Admissions officers have a kind of sixth sense for students who craft their essays and, in many cases their lives, to maximize their chances of getting in. As he notes, this kind of admissions spin actually diminishes, rather than enhances, your chance of getting in.
There’s a better way to think about the admissions essay. I call it the inspired approach. Writing an inspired essay requires that you forget about pandering to the admissions committee. It requires that you take a look within – that you use the essay as an opportunity to write about an idea or experience that has shaped you.
There is no formula for writing an inspired essay. There is no one “right” way.
There are, however, a few basic guidelines that might be helpful in creating an essay that gives colleges a window into who you are:
As we enter the peak of the admissions season, remember – your task in writing the admissions essay isn’t strategic. It’s not like playing chess or battleship. It’s not about marketing yourself to the admissions committee.
The most compelling essays arise from a different source. They come from inspired students – from students who write about what matters to them in a raw, authentic, and honest way.
Nate Klemp, PhD is the founder of Inspired Admissions. Klemp is a former professor of political philosophy at Pepperdine University and holds a BA in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in political philosophy from Princeton University.