What Do Admissions Officers Mean When They Say, "Don't Write an Admissions Essay on What You Think We Want to Hear"?

An applicant requested my answer to this question the other day:

"Most college admission counselors ask that you not write an admissions essay on things "you think they want to hear." What exactly do they not want to hear?"

I get this question often, and the answer stems from understanding why you are asked to submit an application essay or series to begin with. 

College applicants have a tendency to misinterpret the purpose of college essays.

A common interpretation is that the essay or series of essays are intended to flatter the college or to impress admission officers.

In reality, admission teams get that a lot of the information you’ve learned about college admissions so far is how to be the poster-child for admissions: get great grades, take AP courses, score well on AP exams, get high scores on the ACT or SAT, take on extracurricular activities, be a leader, develop a talent, play a sport, get teachers to recommend you…you get the picture.

Admissions teams then have a large pool of potential applicants who meet the general requirements for admission to their school.

So how do they decide between John and Jane?

Well, there’s a huge component missing from your application that application essays help you answer: who are you? Aside from school, your extracurricular activities, and how others see you, how do you see yourself? College essays give you the opportunity to tell a story from your life that allows an admission officer to get to know you better. The key word in that last sentence is story. You are telling a story from your life and reflecting on it.

Therefore, the request for you to not to write a response that you think they want to hear really translates to: please be yourself, and please tell us something we don’t know about you based on the rest of your application.

Authenticity in your essays will help the admissions team determine how and if you’ll fit in on their campus. They are interested in your stories. They are interested in seeing you reflect on your experiences.

As a college essay coach, I’ve noticed it’s almost instinctual for applicants to want to talk about a quality they think admissions teams would like. Worry less about impressing them and write something you really want to share.

Here’s a video that explains more.

Happy Writing!

This article was written by Jaclyn Corley, the founder of TheCollegeEssayCaptain.com.  Her mission is to empower college and career applicants tell their stories powerfully.