College Admissions: How We Decide When We Have So Many Equally Qualified Candidates

By Sam Rosensohn

For everyone enrolled in College 101, we’re going to start class today with a pop quiz – no reason to growl; there’s only one question on this assessment.

While grades and SAT scores remain the top factors in the college admission process, which of the following tip factors gained more prominence in 2004?

A)   High school class rank

B)   The college is the student’s first choice

C)   The essay that accompanies the college application

D)   Number of completed AP courses

E)    Someone in the applicant’s family graduated from that particular institution

The National Association for College Admission Counseling provided the answer in its newly released book, State of College Admission, which is chockfull of insider information.

Oh, the correct answer? It’s C. “The essay as a factor in admission has continued to grow in importance over the last 11 years,” according to this terrific book that can be found at

“In fact, the student’s essay/writing sample has nearly surpassed a student’s rank in class as one of the top four factors in the college admission process,” according to the assessment written by David Hawkins,  NACAC’s Director of Public Policy.

That’s important information. And the 158 page book is filled with insider stuff that will help you to see how colleges work admissions. “Since more qualified candidates are headed for four-year colleges with each passing year, efforts to add a ‘face’ to the incoming class may be driving admissions officers toward the essay as a quick way to individualize each application,” according to the State of College Admission.

Now that it’s established that the essay now carries more pop; let’s get to how to write it. For starters, gather all of the essays that you will need to submit.

I’d suggest you take a look at the Common Application ( to see how many of your picks accept the Common Application. Download the essay questions and start to think about the one you want to answer.

The essay questions on the common application work for 277 colleges and universities. If the schools you want to apply to do not accept the Common Application go to those schools’ homepages and download their applications.

Once you’ve decided on the essay you want to write first, here’s what I suggest you do: Don’t start writing. Step back and consider the following: Admission officers are looking to discover who you are and if you would be a good fit at their schools.

An essay that offers insight into what is essential to you will generally do the job. Readers are looking to discover students who care deeply about something and who’ve committed themselves to that endeavor.

A strong college essay provides evidence of a student’s most important achievement, what he cares about most in the world, and why college is important to him.

Now look at the initial essay you chose and see if it will allow you to present what you’ve devoted yourself to and care deeply about. Does the question let you present a prominent portion of your history in an interesting manner?

“When students lament, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before,’ they’re right,” says Sarah M. McGinty, a university supervisor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of The College Application Essay,

An essay that asks students to define themselves is a far cry from “the short analytical papers about historical events, books, documents and lab reports,” McGinty wrote.

One way to breathe easier about all of this is to look at a wide variety of well-written essays. Ask some of your friends who’ve just graduated if you can read their essays. Take a look at The Princeton Review’s College Essays That Make a Difference (there are 89 real college essays in the book). Think of trying to write a mystery without ever having read one. Same for the college essay. Read a bunch of college essays and you’ll discover a variety of interesting ways to approach the task.

An excellent essay simply “shows you at your alive and thinking best, a person worth listening to – not just for the ten minutes it takes to read your application, but for the next four years,” notes Harry Bauld, author of On Writing the College Application Essay.

Bauld, a former admissions officer at Brown University and assistant director of admissions at Columbia University, encourages a student to say “what he knows in a fresh way that allows us to see for ourselves who he is.”

He discourages students from attempting to say something “startling and new, or strain to be different.”

At the moment there is a growing trend that has seniors writing highly stylized essays that are short on genuine autobiography.

I’ve watched students labor for hours over what they perceive to be catchy first sentences that convey little information about themselves.

This is not to say that a good essay shouldn’t dazzle from the opening; it’s to say that honest autobiography trumps style every time.

So to the rising seniors – when you have some down brain-time (waiting in line to get your pizza order or driving to a friend’s house) think about how you might answer the college essays you downloaded, and take a tip from McGinty.

She suggests you think, talk and plan your essays with people who will critique them before you start writing. “Intervention is most useful if it’s early in the process. There is no possibility of helping a student in any meaningful way if she comes to you with a finished essay and says, “This is my essay, tell me what you think?” What she wants you to think is, “What’s the phone number of those people at the Pulitzer Prize?”

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the New SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at