9 months ago
Admissions Advice

Are admissions officers meticulous when evaluating essay applications?

Hello! I was curious: Are admissions officers meticulous when evaluating essay applications? Or do they skim through each one out of efficiency and scan for keywords and easily-identifiable, desirable traits? I ask this because my essay is very philosophical and requires semi-in-depth analysis to comprehensively understand my character and mindset. (i.e. the reader might have to reread the essay to catch some of the implied messages and intrinsic philosophies within the text that they'd otherwise miss). I would expect the answer would be to adjust my writing style to be more direct and concise, but I don't wish to compromise my artistic expression (using metaphors, sophisticated syntax, etc.) in order to accommodate to perhaps an ignorant reader. It wouldn't feel like "me". Anyways, thank you for taking the time to answer my long-winded question! Any and every thought would help :)


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2 answers

Accepted Answer
9 months ago

If you gave your essay to 20 schools, each admissions officer would read it slightly differently because of their time constraint, inherent biases to what their school is looking for based on their prompt (s), and personal reading comprehension and intelligence. In a room of application readers, or now in quarantine, say 20 home offices, each application reader has a different approach to how much time they want to dedicate to reading essays. Given the record number of applications at some schools which are 50% to 100% more than the last cycle, these folks have much less time to review each file in-depth compared to previous seasons, so they might dedicate anywhere from 5 minutes to 10 minutes (15 min max) to read your entire files front to back. Think of it like a job application where they are asking you a take-home quiz in the form of an essay (s) and you submit your essay to see if you pass muster and meet the threshold. Essays are not an intelligence test but more a test of fitment to the narrative of school goals and their attempts to build the most interesting and wonderful freshman class of cohorts. So if you read between the lines of what I'm laying out, do you think 20 application readers who might only have a few minutes to read your essay and figure it out will fully comprehend and appreciate what you have written? Or do you think your style of writing is more conducive to someone who takes their time, pauses, re-reads passages, and then circles back one more time to figure out if they got it right? If you write like Dostoyevsky or Kafka, then someone may not fully embrace the intent of your writing in real-time because they may have to look up works, think about your wordsmithing choice, wonder if you are using embellishing language to impress, or they are just not ready for the mental puzzle at that moment because its 1:45 PM and they haven't eaten lunch and their 7-year-old twins are fighting in the next room.

I would err on the side of writing the cleanest, most articulate, direct essays possible so that the message is not lost in the style, your own brand of philosophy, and use of metaphors and other literary tools and clever tricks. While essays are very important, they shouldn't challenge the reader to the extent they have to second guess what you are writing about. I remember watching this youtube video on this really smart private school applicant who applied to all the elite colleges and Ivys and didn't get into any of them. He had perfect grades, took 12+ APs, great ECs, great recommendations, 99%+ percentile test scores, and submitted like 800s on his SAT II subject tests. But he said in the vlog that his main essay was about his personal philosophy and in hindsight way too complicated for someone to read and digest in 4-5 minutes on the first read. He didn't send it to his friends for peer review or any adults because he thought "hey, this is me, I'm really clever, I'm really deep, I think I need to put this out there for the world to appreciate". But it was his Achilles heel and he only got into his target school, all his reaches rejected him. After watching that, I realized that this all these application readers are basically on an assembly line trying to put together the best Freshman class as fast as possible. If there are any doubts about a file, sometimes they get a 2nd reader to review it but at some schools, only one reader reviews the file before it goes to the committee for a thumbs up, thumbs down, or waitlist.

When I submitted my essays, I made sure no less than 5 people read them from my dad to my closest friends who are all super book smart for lack of a better term. I went through 10-20 re-writes or more on each one. It's very important that you get as many people as possible to read your essays to see if you are putting out something galactic and out of this world, or something they feel the people at ABC or XYZ university want to read. Also, Collegevine has excellent essay streams for specific colleges and specific prompts. Those are super helpful because the experts at CV, have helped thousands of students apply to these schools. They are all free so just look out for them and listen to the advice.

Good luck.

9 months ago

Hi there! You already have an excellent answer laid out, but I wanted to quickly chime in.

Admissions officers reading your application are spending very little time on a first pass than you might imagine -- just a couple minutes. This means that they need to be able to understand who you are from a very small amount of "interaction". On the flip side, they're well-trained to do this, so they will clock anything that seems off. What this means practically is that they aren't necessarily going through each essay with a fine-toothed comb, but they will certainly notice mistakes, typos, or lines that are red flags.

In terms of style, your essay needs to reflect who you are; definitely don't flatten yourself into who you think a reader wants to see. You do have to remember, however, that you are always writing for an audience, and in this case that audience is a stranger who doesn't know anything about you besides your academic performance. I would hesitate to call them "an ignorant reader" though -- they know what marks a strong student and a strong essay; they just don't know you. Therefore, you don't need to sacrifice your style, but you do need to make concessions to readability. My writing, for example, is naturally flowery and complex. I love to use semicolons, em dashes, and appositive clauses. When I edit my own work, I keep some of these features but pare down to ensure my work is legible to people who don't have access to the inside of my head.

As others have said, you should have other people read the essay (ideally people who aren't totally familiar with the writing process of it, like a teacher or counselor) to see how they process it. A couple sets of eyes are more likely to catch mistakes. Additionally, everyone will have different ideas on how the essay should look, so you'll gain new perspectives and have the opportunity to choose where to accept suggestions and where to stay true to your original structure. You should also read the essay out loud to yourself to see where you it feels awkward or where you need to break something into a few sentences.

Finally, be sure that, especially if your essay is a bit dense, your conclusion is incredibly clear. Do not be afraid to hit a reader over the head with your thesis a little bit. It is better for them to feel the topic is a little overexplained than for them to feel it is impenetrable.

Best of luck!


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