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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Picking the Right Topic for a UVa Application Essay

There's a rule that most admission officers learn during their rookie year. Never, ever tell anyone exactly what you do for a living in a social setting. When I was a new professional, I couldn't fathom why this rule was important, but I learned soon enough. Here is what happens when you tell someone you work in admission at a party, meeting in the community, or on a plane:


There are two common themes in the barrage of questions we get. First, people want to discuss the rumors they've heard about our process. Second, they want to know if we really read the application essays and what topics are the best ones.

That dovetails with Andy's question in the comments on yesterday's post.



The quick answers:
1. How do admission counselors feel about essays with a religion bent? Fine.
2. Are they cliche right from the start? No.
3. Do you get a lot of them? Plenty. (How many would a lot be if the pool is 90,000 essays?)
4. Are you tempted to skip them or give them a skimming over? No.
5. Or is there a negative bias if, say, the school itself is a public or secular institution? No.


The long answer:
I think people "over think" essay topics. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the "right" answer is or what answer will be most pleasing to the admission officers. Here's the thing:

The essay topic is a vehicle that you are using to convey something about you, your personality, and/or your voice.

There is no "right" topic for me or my colleagues. There isn't a topic that we see that is instantly pleasing to us. There is a "right" for you to use, though. You need to settle on a topic that lets you be interesting and authentic in your writing. 

One of the fun parts about working for a public school with 14,000 students (and about 30,000 applicants) is that we get to read all sorts of essays. The essays we see cover everything under the sun (and some stuff beyond that, too). The variety makes this process interesting, educational, and, at times, entertaining. 

Oftentimes, we are put on the spot to describe a favorite or great essay. What comes to mind are the outliers. So, we rattle off a few lines from the quirky or strange essay that stuck in our head and I imagine that some think they have to say something shocking or weird to get our attention. That isn't necessarily the case. Most students write about every day things. They talk about an academic area that interests them, an activity, a family member, or an experience that might be somewhat common to teenagers that affected them. What makes those essays successful? They are deeply personal and give us insight into the person behind the application. 



What other topics would you like me to cover? I have a great list of future blog posts going and I'm happy to add to it.