Guiding Students Through Admissions Essays

Charlotte West offers advice for college counselors on the guidance they should provide applicants.

December 11, 2017

As college application deadlines loom large, high school seniors are starting to feel the pressure. Their college counselors might feel it even more, as anxious students line up at their doors with last-minute questions and requests for recommendations. As a college admissions reader, I learned a few things that helped me in my own advising: don’t sweat the small stuff, and help students find their own voices.

I started working in higher education as an international transfer adviser in the community college system in Washington State. My experience as a transfer adviser helped me make the leap to working on the other side of the desk. While attending a regional conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, I was intrigued to find out that many public universities with a large volume of applications hire temporary staff to help sort through the pile.

Readers participate in training that involves “norming” -- which means that different readers will learn to apply the scoring rubric in the same way. While there is always room to debate the minutiae, the goal of norming is to ensure that two different readers wouldn’t assign wildly different scores to the same applicant. These external readers are, in most cases, not making final admissions decisions, but they read through and assign a score to each application.

Although there are some notable differences between transfer and freshman admission, working as a reader fundamentally altered the way that I was advising my own students. I started to spend less time on helping students craft the perfect essay and more time on making sure the information they provided would be useful to the people reading them. (Although some of the advice below is universal, It’s important to note that my experience applies mainly to large, public research universities, as private colleges and universities often have different processes in place.)

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how essential it is that the student’s voice comes through. As a reader, I’m neither supposed to make assumptions about a student’s background nor to otherwise fill in the blanks left by the student.

If a student writes about coming from a low-income background, I can’t make the assumption that she therefore may not have access to the same educational opportunities, such as SAT prep classes, as her wealthier peers. She needs to tell me explicitly how her experiences and background impacted her academic performance and opportunities.

Transcripts tell one story, but not necessarily the one that is most beneficial to students. From a transcript, I can tell that a student changed schools in the middle of sophomore year or that her grades suddenly dropped junior year. But unless the student elaborates, I have no idea how the student’s academic performance may have been impacted by a midyear move or any extenuating circumstances that led to an academic setback.

I remember one application where the student wrote about the fact that her high school had been consolidated with another in her district and her class size went from 200 to 2,000. That context was important in understanding her class ranking and grades. Providing details on extenuating circumstances does not necessarily mean that readers will ignore low grades, but it does help put them into context. A single low grade from an otherwise stellar student is not necessarily a deal breaker.

Besides their essays, students also miss a lot of opportunities to provide information that would help readers more accurately assess their educational histories. Most external readers are not going to be familiar with the particular high school, so the “Additional Information” section can be a great place to provide more insight into a student’s particular situation at their school.

Useful information includes details on grading systems, nontraditional academic terms, grade point average calculation, ranking systems and special curricula. Counselors should help students phrase this information in a way that provides an explanation, but doesn’t sound like an excuse. The “Additional Information” section is not the place to editorialize (or write another essay), but rather to provide facts that help the reader understand the student’s academic performance.

Another thing I learned from the other side of the desk is that readers are not editors. While I always tell students that it’s important to polish their writing, it’s been helpful to keep in mind that admissions readers are not spending their time looking for misplaced modifiers or dangling participles.

Readers look at the application package in its entirety. While writing quality can be a factor for highly selective liberal arts schools or honors programs, small errors aren’t doing to be a death knell for most schools. Each application may only get about 10 minutes on the first round of reading, so focus on helping students make the information in their applications as clear and concise as possible.

Counselors can also help students by confirming details of extenuating circumstances in letters of recommendation or school reports, or perhaps providing information that the students were uncomfortable sharing themselves (with the student’s permission) or wouldn’t have thought to include.

Whenever possible, counselors should also upload a school profile with the student’s application. Readers are interested in not only how students perform relative to the applicant pool, but also how they perform relative to their peers at their high school. A student with relatively low test scores compared to a university’s average will look stronger if they outperformed all of their classmates.

Useful information includes a school’s median test scores, percentage of students going to two- and four-year colleges, the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, and the AP and honors classes available (or if a school doesn’t offer any honors classes at all).

A final lesson: admissions decisions aren’t personal. Rejection letters of course feel very personal to the individual student, but there are all sorts of factors that go into selecting an incoming class. The competitiveness of the applicant pool changes from year to year, and so do the priorities that are emphasized by a particular university. One year, we gave more weight to test scores, and another year, extracurricular activities were more important.

It’s been a privilege to work as an admissions reader, to get a very tiny glimpse into a particular student’s world. I’ve read applications that made me want to cry, and others that made me chuckle. There are so many talented, well-qualified students seeking higher education opportunities. Readers are not, as Portia Nathan said in Admission, looking for reasons to say no. “We are in this job for one reason: to say yes.”


Charlotte West is a freelance writer and educator based in Seattle. She has worked in higher education as an academic adviser, admissions reader, researcher and instructor in history and government.


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