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Understanding Your Audience: The College Admissions Officers

They're overworked. They're underpaid. Fairly often they're also bored. After all, how many hours are you willing to stare at test scores and course lists? How many pages of student writing would you honestly want to read? Clearly, admissions officers have a tough job. They've got to put together a class of students who will succeed academically and create a lively campus atmosphere. Depending upon the institution, they've also got to supply a backup quarterback, a cellist who can stay in tune, and a reasonably literate staff for the school paper. And if the admissions officers fail, they spend the entire year fielding complaints and listening to inaccurate descriptions from crotchety faculty of "the good old days when we got quality students."

In brief, that's the audience for an admission essay. If you're applying for a scholarship, your audience is similar, though their workload may be smaller. During the process of writing your essay, you should at times keep this audience in mind. Why not all the time? Because if you spend too long worrying about what your reader will think of you, you won't have time to do what has to be done: Write an essay that accurately represents you. Think about the audience after you've decided what to write, when you're trying to stay within the word limit (so they'll have time to read the whole thing) and when you're attempting to make your essay interesting (so they won't be bored). No matter what, don't sit around trying to psych them out.

Forgetting about strategy

"What do they want to read? I'll say anything!" Sound familiar? If so, you're hanging out with the wrong crowd. Too many applicants expend far too much energy attempting to analyze the admissions office, creating myths such as these:

  • Myth: Every college has a magic topic that guarantees admission. "If you want to go to Airhead U, write about hang-gliding. Forget Shakespeare." "Always mention sports in your essay for Flatfoot College." Rumors like these spread quickly, but they're a waste of time. Anyone who claims to know tricks that guarantee admission is indulging in wishful thinking.
  • Myth: One mistake can sink your application. "She uses semicolons? Dump her." "This guy spent four years in the debating society. He's gonna argue with everyone. Out he goes." As they say in New York, gimme a break. Granted, if you write an essay about your admiration for serial killers, you probably won't get into the college of your choice (and a cozy padded room would be a better spot for your next four years anyway). But if you're remotely normal and you write the truth about yourself, you don't have to worry about breaking a rule you only imagine exists. You'll either get in or you won't, but your semicolon habit will have nothing to do with the outcome.
  • Myth: Some topics are automatic turn-offs. Various Authority Figures tell you with great confidence never to write about the Big Game, the death of a relative, or some other particular topic they've labeled taboo. Nonsense. No topic is off limits if you handle it well. (See "Choosing honesty as the best policy," the next section, for how to handle it well.)
  • Myth: If a particular topic worked for one student, it will work for all. "Herman wrote about his nail clipper and he got into his first choice, so I'm going with a manicure description." Good idea? No. Okay, reading other people's work may give you valuable tips on style and format. But content is a different story. Herman didn't get in because of his nail clipper. (Actually, Herman probably got in despite the fact that he wrote about his nail clipper.) Herman got in because of a host of factors you know nothing about, including his grades and recommendations, his ability to run a four-minute mile, and the fact that his essay contained superb style and format. The moral of the story: Write your own essay and forget about everyone else's.

Choosing honesty as the best policy

In the previous section ("Forgetting about strategy"), you found out about some myths regarding the admission essay, especially mistaken ideas about what the admissions officers want from you. Now it's time to state what the admissions officers do want to read:

  • Reality. Why are Survivor and other reality shows so popular? Because all of us enjoy peaking into someone else's life. Admissions officers want to hear about the real stuff of your life. Like every other human who ever lived, they don't take kindly to liars or exaggerators.
  • A voice. As you write your admission essay, keep in mind that the person reading it wants to meet an actual person, even though the meeting is only on paper. Granted, you should present your best self — the dressed-up-for-company version. But your best self is still yourself, not someone else.
  • Thoughtfulness. Say you're taking a philosophy exam with only one question: Design an ideal society. Some students might sweat for three hours, explaining the ins and outs of community structure and grappling with the tension between individual rights and group responsibility. Others may finish in ten minutes, making statements like "In my ideal community everyone will be happy." Guess which level of complexity is more appealing to the admissions committee? Answer: Door #1 — the thoughtful version.
  • Good writing. Good writing is vivid; it leaps off the page and takes the reader out of the armchair and into the subject at hand. Good writing is clear; the reader doesn't have to sit around wondering whether you're describing a redwood forest or a brokerage office as the site of your best summer ever. Good writing holds the reader's attention, even if he or she has an almost overwhelming desire for sleep. Write well and rest easy in the knowledge that you've given the application your best shot.
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