When Writing your College Admissions Essay, Know your Audience

By: Caroline Koppelman

Up until now, the audience for your writing has probably been limited. You’ve had essays and papers due for your humanities classes, where you know the teacher well, and maybe you’ve dabbled in creative writing for yourself or a school assignment. With the exception of a few students, most first time college applicants have never written a cover letter or any other sort of writing that is intended to be read by an unknown audience. This is one of the many struggles with the common app personal statement—the college essay. It is difficult to strike the right tone because most likely, you’ve never written anything quite like it. The first thing we always tell our students is to consider their audience.  

The college process can sometimes feel faceless and bureaucratic, so it can be hard to remember that this essay is actually going to be read by a real person. Perhaps you have the school in mind, so you think “Harvard” is going to read your essay. But, realistically, “Harvard” is a moderately overworked reader—a REAL human person reading and evaluating hundreds of essays. When you keep your audience—your essay reader—in mind, you will be able to make better decisions about what to include or not include in your essay.  

Your audience is not your peers, your parents, or your teachers. Your essay reader does not know you and does not have any reason to feel favorably towards you. Most admissions officers spend months buried in applications. Take a school like Brown University where this past year 3,030 people applied early decision. Their applications were due on November 1st and all of them received their decisions on December 10th. That means the readers had a little over a month to not only read all of these essays, but to select candidates based on a litany of criteria. This averages to about 108 essays per day. Unless you have the unlikely fortune of being the very first essay anyone reads (obviously never count on this), the readers are exhausted by the time they get to your essay. The last thing they want to see is an overly precocious, trite, or inappropriate essay. They need to cut down this three thousand applicant pool by around 80%, and are looking for any reason to reject you.  

You are a unique person, but so is every other applicant. While this may seem disspiriting, it's crucial to understand this and know your audience. At Brown, you are 1 of 3,030. You must always be balancing. You want to stand out, but for the right reasons. You don’t want to play it so safe as to be boring, but you don’t want to write about something cringeworthy in order to be remembered.

So please, keep your audience in mind. This is not meant to intimidate you or make you close yourself off, but it is a piece of advice we find many students never get. Assume these readers are adults around your parent’s age. Don’t try to sound wise beyond your years, incorporate up to the minute slang, or make obnoxiously flowery metaphors. But you want to make sure the reader gets a sense of you and who you are. Tell a story which will grab them and bring them into your life, world, and mind. These readers value your perspectives and observations, and want to see confidence, humor, and depth. They want to be pleasantly surprised when a student does something creative, personal, and genuine which they can connect to on a human level. So always remember, it’s not some nameless, faceless automaton reading your essay. It’s a tired, overworked person looking for a reason to say no. With a strong essay, you can give them one more reason to say yes.