A lot of the time, the college admissions process can feel like trying to navigate a maze without a map. Or, when you do have a map, it’s in another language and torn into 100 pieces. There is so much information out there and there are so many who people say they are admissions experts that it can be hard to comb the good information out of the tangles of the internet.
One of the reasons that I love helping amazing kids get into great colleges is that I get to be a sort of interpreter. I take all that mess of information and have the privilege of making it make sense. Sometimes this is a challenge, college profiles shift, supplements change, and the admissions process is a constant game of trying to stay ahead of the ball. But, other times, the best and clearest intelligence falls neatly into my lap.
A few weeks ago, I was in LA touring colleges and I had the opportunity to talk directly to an admissions officer at Pomona. We chatted for a bit before we got down to brass tacks.
“How important is the essay and what makes an essay stand out?”
The answer was helpful, especially if you want to get into Pomona, but it also aligns perfectly with what we have been telling our clients and readers for years. The essay is VERY important, and you need to push yourself a little out of your comfort zone if you want to stand out.
According to the admissions officer, there are six things that are absolute ‘musts’ if you want to catch their attention.
Talk about yourself
Like many admissions officers, the team at Pomona reads a lot of essays about someone else, or about an event, and when the essay comes up in committee they haven’t learned enough about the student to push them from the maybe pile into the yes pile. Most of the time, this isn’t because the student completely ignored the prompt. Rather, they were too subtle for their own good. A student’s reflection and analysis of someone or something other than themselves isn’t a nuanced approach that will win marks. Actually, the admissions officer shared that it undercuts their ability to know you. You can include other people and can include an event or two, but you have to be at the center of the work.
Tell them something they don’t already know
We’ve talked about this a lot, but the admissions officer just confirmed it again - you have to show something about yourself that doesn’t pop-up elsewhere in your application or supplements. If you wrote about wanting to play soccer in the supplement, listed soccer as an extracurricular, and are being recruited, don’t write about soccer in your essay. They know that about you already. Instead, you should present an experience, interest, or aspect of yourself that hasn’t come up yet, or that has only been touched on very lightly.
Show, Don’t Tell
According to the Pomona admissions officer, students who stand out are the ones who paint a picture, have a narrative structure, and really write a story. These are all things that we emphasize at every possible opportunity. This isn’t a monotonous monologue about your life with no clear start or beginning, it’s an essay, so write it like one.
Depth, Not Breadth
Many students are told to write about themselves and then proceed to try to tell their life’s story, but 650 words isn’t a lot and the college essay isn’t meant to be a glorified biography. One of my favorite things that the admissions officer shared is that students should aim for “depth, not breadth.” Essays should not just scratch the surface, they need to dive deep. The reader doesn’t need to learn everything about you to learn what makes you, you.
This one is simple: allow yourself to be vulnerable. Vulnerability does not equal weakness. The ability to be vulnerable is the truest embodiment of strength.
Just be honest, just revise
Tell your truth, but take the time to tell it well. Don’t rush your essay. Write, revise, and then revise some more.
After the admissions officer shared these tips, I asked her whether she would remember an essay that was so powerful that she had to get up mid-read to tell someone else in the office about it. “Yes,” she said. Just recently, an essay about death had come across her desk. Death isn’t a novel topic, and it can be hard to write about because it is so clearly about someone else. Essays about death can turn into eulogies to the lost person. They are often beautiful, but rarely successful as a college essay. This student had done it differently though. His friend died after being struck by lightning, and the student wrote about the process of grieving. He wrote about how he struggled to make sense of the randomness of the event, and about how hard it was to heal. The essay was vulnerable and honest, and it tapped into the universal human experience of loss.
So, if you want to get into Pomona, really give yourself time to write a stellar essay. Be honest, be vulnerable, go deep, paint scenes, and put yourself at the center of them. Then take a break before revisiting and revising. If you find you need some assistance along the way, let us know. We’d love to help.