Is There a Silver Bullet for College Essays?

“Use These Two Words On Your College Essay to Get Into Harvard.” A few weeks ago I came across this very article title, and curious of anything that makes an Ivy League acceptance sound like the end of a “One Weird Trick” Internet ad, I decided to see what these incredibly influential words were.

After reading the article, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed given my initial level of anticipation. After all, why should my students and I spend hours perfecting their essays if it really just boils down to making sure you’ve slipped in the appropriate pass code or magic phrase? As it turns out, there isn’t one.

There is, however, a new startup, Admitsee, “that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants.” Using Admitsee’s site, for a price high school students can see essays, short answer responses, and other submitted materials that have resulted in admit decisions, and (I assume) craft their own applications accordingly.

Admitsee itself is, potentially, a useful tool, and one in keeping with the gradual movement taking place in higher education toward greater transparency. However, and it is unclear whether these are Admitsee’s or the author’s, the conclusions drawn in the article seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of college admissions in general, and the use of the essay specifically.

Among some of the more insightful are: If applying to Harvard and writing about your parents, use the terms “father” and “mother”, but if applying to Stanford, “mom” and “dad” are the way to go. Or, again if applying to Harvard, make sure you write a “downer” essay with more negative words, because terms like “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appear more frequently on accepted students’ essays.

I, hopefully obviously, am being sarcastic, because while the above examples may be true, what is far more important is why they’re true: Harvard’s admission officers aren’t just scanning essays looking for a couple of the right words or phrases. Instead, they’re carefully reading those personal statements to determine who is a good fit for the oldest, most prestigious university in the country, and possibly the most competitive academic environment in the world.

In that light, it makes sense that on the whole, they might prefer students who aren’t quite as casual, and have demonstrated that they are up to the significant challenge of Harvard’s undergraduate experience. Just as it does that Brown, which prides itself as being the “odd-man out” of the Ivy League by its more relaxed campus culture and open curriculum, might have a greater interest in students’ volunteerism and public interest work, to use another example cited in the article.

In sum, do your research when deciding which schools to apply to, but focus on finding those that are the right fit for you and your goals, not just on how to get in. Then use your essay to tell an admission office why you’re a good fit for their institution, and the decision process should take care of itself.

If you’re interested, maybe even browse Admitsee. As Stephanie Shyu, one of the company’s cofounders says, “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions. [They] can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”

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