This is the story of a young man who made a mistake in one sentence of his college application essay and it cost him admittance to Amherst.
Here’s how it goes:
Recently an NPR reporter went behind the scenes at Amherst College in Massachusetts to see how college admissions decisions are made. The admissions committee was having one of their final meetings; they’d narrowed it down to the top 15 percent of applicants and now, one by one, they were presenting each student’s grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays.
The Essay is Discussed
The committee turned to the application of the young man in question. His college application essay caught the attention of a dean, and not in a good way. She was troubled by a sentence that read ”I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject.” The student went on to say that music was his exception. No one was pleased.
“That was flabbergasting,” commented one of the admissions readers.
“Intellectual passion is a must,” said the Dean of Admissions. Everyone agreed. The student was not admitted.
What Went Wrong?
The student clearly intended to write about his passion for music. So why did the college admissions committee care more about what he said first: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject”?
The Student Violated 2 Major Rules:
1. Know Your Reader
Amherst is a small, prestigious liberal arts college. If you go to their website and read the school’s philosophy it’s all about intellectual curiosity. Did this student visit Amherst’s website? I don’t know. But when he said he wasn’t fascinated by anything other than music he certainly seemed not to understand.
Remember you’re not writing your college application essay for you — you’re writing it for college admissions readers to read and like. You want them to finish your essay and want you to go to their school. You have to figure out what makes you a good fit and how you’re going to convey that.
One way to begin is to visit the school’s website. You can get a lot of information from a website. What’s their educational philosophy? What kind of students do they want to attract? Then you can begin to decide how to show them you’re that kind of person.
2. Don’t Cast Yourself in a Negative Light
I’m sure this student had no idea he was saying anything negative about himself. After all, he was writing about his love of music. But by saying “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” he casts himself in a negative light. He’s telling the college admissions reader “I really don’t care much about stuff, except I like music.”
One other thing I want to point out is his use of the present tense: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” By writing in the present tense he’s talking about now. It’s not something that used to be — he’s not interested now.
What if the sentence were changed slightly? What if this college application essay began, “I started getting fascinated by new ideas when I fell in love with music”? Doesn’t that sound more positive? Instead of the word “rarely” I used the word “started” — something has begun. A transformation. A journey. That might get the attention of the Amherst admissions committee. I’m not saying it would have been right for this student, but you can see the difference it makes. This sentence is now about someone who loves the idea of learning, and is completely positive.
You always want to showcase yourself in a positive light. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about a personal journey or a learning experience; we all make mistakes or come to important realizations in our lives — that can make a powerful essay. But you don’t want to give a negative impression. Not a smart way to portray yourself.
- Know your reader
- Don’t cast yourself in a negative light
If you’re not sure, have someone read your essays. Find someone who understands what colleges are looking for, and where the pitfalls lie, and ask them for constructive criticism. Make sure to give yourself time to make adjustments.
Ultimately, the admissions process is not an exact science. But college admissions committees don’t take the process lightly; they struggle with knowing they hold each student’s future in their hands.
Make sure you hold as much of your future in your own hands as you can. Write a great essay.