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Admissions Essays Blog
Through our very own editors and guest writers, this blog will discuss the INSIDE scoop on the admissions process of various schools and programs. If you wish to ask a specific question, please write to us, and we will make every attempt to address your questions in our future blog discussions.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Word Counts in Admissions Essays: Quality over Quantity
Much ado has been made about word-limits in admissions essays over this last admissions cycle. Earlier this year, the Common Application re-instated a 500-word limit on their admission essay. A handful of universities have inspired water-cooler chats by hacking their word-limits down as small as 140 characters. The changes have raised questions about whether or not shorter word-counts have the effect of strangling the personality out of a composition designed to be the student's only real outlet for self-expression.

Here's the thing. Admissions officers have a really good idea of just how long it takes to offer a meaningful self-portrait in words. Few universities will discard an essay simply because it goes a few words over or under the prescribed limit. Yet students persist in over-analyzing just how much wiggle room they have (10% over? 5% under?). I recently came across an article in which an admissions expert noted the following: if you are wasting all of your energy trying to decide whether your essay should be 520 words or 545 words, you are missing the point. I have to agree. As an editor, I have had countless students ask me to help them trim as few as twenty words from an essay. I am a strong proponent of proofreading, and I think placing extra pairs of eyes on admissions essays is essential. What isn't helpful is funneling energy into the addition or subtraction of a handful of words. At some point, you're more worried about extricating "the's" and "because's", and you've stopped paying attention to the overall quality of your essay. It's a little like taking a pair of scissors to the hem of a dress which really needs to be taken in at the waist. So, hard as it may be, students must learn to keep the word-count in mind, without making it the central focus of their essay. Believe me, that's exactly what the reader will be doing.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011
So You Want to be a Lawyer
These days, the web is filled with advice about writing admissions essays; much of it sounds the same-just delivered in different packages. The other day, I came across yet another list-of-pitfalls-to-avoid-in-essay writing; this particular blogger reserved his ire for narratives about study abroad experiences (not helpful, by the way), and I must say, it made me giggle. Having reviewed thousands of law school admissions essays over the past decade, I realized I had some pet peeves of my own to share, all in the spirit of constructive criticism, naturally.

Please, please, please spare everyone the platitudes about wanting to change the world. A tiny sliver of law students will get to work for a human rights organization or draft revolutionary legislative policy. Many more will have the chance to work at the local legal aid clinic, but the latter isn't going to put much of a dent into that six-figure student loan debt. If you are going to follow this angle, please avoid ambling into hypothetical fantasy territory and bind your dreams together with some pragmatism.

If you have a particular specialty in mind, mention it. If not, don't waste too much time on speculation. Many firms are happy to take on bright-eyed associates and let them grow into a specialty, but most admissions officers would welcome a student with sharply honed direction. If you intend to use your J.D. for something other than practice, talk about that.

Answer the obvious question: "why do you want to go to law school?" You'd be surprised how many people skip that part. Watching lots of Law & Order, serving on a jury or successfully fighting a parking ticket is just not enough. Sure, we all like the idea of crusading for justice, but if you're invested enough to consider three grueling years of law school, you need the school to know that you're aware of what you're in for.

No one wants to admit that they are pursuing a law degree to make lots of money and/or because they are bad at math and science, but don't assume that your reader won't read between the lines figure this out anyways. Your job is to make them think more of you and of your legal aspirations. In a profession built upon the art of persuasion, consider the law school admission essay your very first test.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011
Starting Your Admission Essay In the Middle of Things
For admissions experts, coming up with ideas on how to help students improve their personal statements is relatively easy. Articulating those tips in an effective, succinct manner is much harder. In this way, the process of dispensing admission essay advice to students is in some way as difficult for the experts as writing the admission essay itself is for the student. This is one of many reasons why I regularly comb the internet for new and inventive admission essay writing tips. There is a lot of superfluous garbage on the digital heap, but careful mining always turns up a few treasures.

A few weeks ago, I harvested a quote about essay writing, where an expert advised students to write not about the "whole classroom" but about the leg of a single desk. Yesterday, I happened upon one of the best admission essay advice columns I'd seen in awhile, and amongst all of his advice, one particular tidbit stood out. With the 500-word-count limit becoming the standard in the world of admission essay, there's really no space for impotent words. (Like "really", for instance). You don't have time to start your story at the beginning. You don't have time to build up to your "point". Instead, it is your job to snatch your reader by the arm and haul them into your story in the middle of the scene.

Looking at the admission essay through the prism of these two crystals of advice allows you, the writer, to understand how to do two things-narrow your focus and understand where, in terms of a moment in time, that you are starting your essay. To see how well good advice can be bundled in a small package, check out this superb blog entry by Alan Gelb: NY times

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011
Race, Again, in College Admissions
In this blog and elsewhere, the subject of race in college admissions is simply unavoidable. Few topics galvanize simmering emotions like this one. Ambivalence seems to have no place in this discussion of whether or not race should be a factor in college admissions. Why are we so sensitive? Perhaps it is simply because college admissions have become so fiercely competitive. It is a sad vulnerability of human nature to covet the unattainable. It is perhaps more pitiful to consider the lengths people will go to fight for the objects of their desire (picture the 4am shopper's tents in front of Wal-Mart on Black Friday). Quips aside, of course, the squabbling over race in college admissions is simply symbolic of American culture's deep unease with its own racism.

Though most universities don't or can't officially consider race in making admissions decisions, many college applications have a "check-box for" race. Most universities want "diverse" student bodies-a vague, amorphous aim that leaves many nervous students wondering what that means, and how to attain it. A recent Huffington post article explores the reasons why some Asian students are now declining to mark the "Asian" box, out of fear that doing so will cause them to be held to higher standards. Huffington Post

Even if college admission was based on pure meritocracy, those who didn't make the cut would continue their hand-wringing over why they weren't chosen for the team. If the best colleges are really about diverse student bodies, what about using socioeconomics as a consideration in college admissions-even if that meant universities took a financial hit? Race, diversity, and the highly elusive game of college admissions are three tightly interwoven topics, unlikely to unravel any time soon. But it is an uncomfortable and complex conversation that we should all be having.

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