What They’re Looking For

I have reviewed thousands of college application packages. My experience on selection panels at the United States Air Force Academy confirmed one of my long-held beliefs–that stories can change our lives. Authors and avid, careful readers alike have known this to be true for centuries. In the context of the college admissions process to which I have been party, a powerful story can change a young man or woman’s life, in the form of getting him or her admitted to one of the most prestigious, selective undergraduate institutions in the country.

The application essay serves several purposes from the administration’s perspective:

    • Why our school?
  • What are your goals?
  • Who are you? (NOT “What have you done?”)

As you attempt to answer these questions for university officials, it helps to remember an observation of one of the most brilliant minds of the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort,” he noted in his customary understated style, “is in general read without pleasure.” Make every word count, and DON’T leave your essay to the last minute.

A well executed essay, then, will (among other things) answer these questions:

  • Can you think and write clearly?
  • Are your goals and expectations reasonable?
  • Will you be a net benefit to our institution and our student body?

It sounds simple enough, but the stakes are high. To invoke a man of letters much more current than Dr Johnson: “Every time you compose a book, your composition of yourself is at stake.” Unlike E.L. Doctorow, we’re not writing a book here. But make no mistake–which college you get accepted to will determine the trajectory of the rest of your life.

Now get writing!