Assaying the Essay

By August 22, 2012April 11th, 2014Other Writing

Featured in Duke University Alumni Magazine

By Rachel Toor

Students apply themselves to the art of standing out in the admissions process, writing as if their futures depended on it

College admissions is an art, not a science. As application numbers go up and the applicant pool gets stronger, as grades and rigorous curriculum choices and standardized testing scores all are going through the roof, the “subjective” parts of the application become increasingly important. We look not only for students who are involved in their communities, but also for those who have made an impact. We look not only for well-rounded students, but also for well-lopsided applicants who have demonstrated real prowess, potential, and focus in a particular area.

This year, the admissions staff at Duke read 14,580 “personal statements.” Although we use six criteria to evaluate applicants, it is surprising how similar many of our hopefuls look. They’ve all taken hard classes and done well. Standardized testing is all in pretty much the same ballpark. Teachers all say they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even extracurriculars look pretty similar: captain of three varsity sports, president of student government, accomplished musician, and so forth. So, the personal statement becomes a way of making the applicant a person, explaining to us in a few double-spaced pages who these students are and why we would want to invite them to join our community.

As in every profession, admissions has its own jargon, its own conventions. We tend to think in shorthand and in categories. There’s a certain inevitability when you ask seventeen-year-olds to write on “a matter of importance” that you will get many similar topics and essays. We understand this commonality of experience and understand, too, how heartfelt and tentative these attempts are, especially given how much our applicants think is riding on their work. They’re trying to impress us; they think they should tell us what they think we want to hear. They try to sound smart and sophisticated and profound. Sometimes they succeed. Mostly, they are truly and painfully and wonderfully honest.

In terms of subject matter, there are a number of common genres. The catalogue of achievements. The meaningful activity. The community-service essay. The horrible tragedy, the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or dog. The “me” essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves; these are often the best. Even though we lump these together, we try never to forget that for each applicant, the personal statement is personal–and about something intensely important. We resist cynicism even in the face of incredible similarity because we know how powerful these experiences are.

As far as we’re concerned, any topic for the essay is fair game. It’s not so much what they write about, but how they write. The writing doesn’t have to be perfect, though some of these applicants are amazing writers. There are often spelling errors, typos, and, sometimes, the last line of their application essay to Duke does read, “and that’s why I really want to go to Stanford.” One applicant this year said she wanted to go to a private school like Duke, not one of the “big state pubic institutions.” We notice these things, but we’re really in the business of content, of looking for substance over style (though we do, of course, appreciate good style).

Can a good essay get an average student into a school like Duke? No, not really. In fact, many of our admitted students write fairly average essays. It’s just one of the criteria we use in our evaluations. But when we read a good essay, we share it with our colleagues. We tell our friends about it. We get excited about the prospect of having the person, who shared his or her life, insight, or humor with us, come to Duke. College is fundamentally about getting to know other people and oneself. While we all learned a lot in our college courses and from our professors, college students ultimately learn from other students, in the dorms, in the dining halls, during late-night study breaks in the library. What a good essay can do is let us get to know a person whom we think other students would enjoy getting to know.

There’s no such as the perfect college admissions essay, no formula for writing one’s way into college, no winning topic. These are just some of our favorites.