If You Could Rewrite Your College Admissions Essay…

The Guardian asked a few different writers to imagine they were 18 and re-applying to college… but instead of writing an admissions essay packed with random achievements to sell themselves, they have to be perfectly honest about why they want to attend that particular school.

Richard Dawkins offered this alternative essay for admission into Oxford:

I’d like to come to Oxford to read biology, but I really haven’t got a very good reason. I drifted into the biological stream at school, partly through the influence of an inspiring teacher but mostly just following in father’s footsteps. Biology probably is my best subject, but that isn’t saying much. I’m a lousy naturalist, which may disappoint my parents, and I’m not great at laboratory work. But I have started to think about deep questions of existence. Why are we here? How does life come to exist on this planet? Why is it the way it is? I think evolutionary biology is the right area to find answers, and I know Oxford is world class in evolution. If the competition isn’t too severe, perhaps you might take a chance on me? I’d like the opportunity to surprise you.

I’m not an admissions counselor, but an essay like that would be *so* much more appealing to me than the cookie-cutter kinds of essays I’m used to seeing from students.

(via John Sargeant)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If the competition isn’t too severe, perhaps you might take a chance on me?

    Tsk, tsk. A declarative statement should not end in a question mark.

  • jdm8

    I loathed writing admission essays. I’m sure they have a use, but I felt it was a waste of my time.

  • Compuholic

    Man, I am glad that I never had to write such an essay. In Germany you simply fill out the paperwork, show that you have completed the equivalent of high school (and in some cases your grades). If you have the necessary credentials you are admitted.

    Of course that only works if all universities are approximately equal in quality. With all that public pressure to be “elite” (which is a rather ridiculous concept here because universities are not private institutions) some of the universities have now introduced such admission criteria.

    Of course they have to introduce such idiotic criteria in order to manage the hordes of students that are now applying which under normal circumstances would have applied for their local university.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    former Top 20 college admissions officer here:

    go for it. you have no idea how hard it is to stay focused after having read 1,000 cookie-cutter essays and knowing you’ve got another 1,000 to go… and that’s just the EA apps. 

    the truth is except for the very elite schools, most essays get skimmed, at best. a large state school has to review tens of thousands of applications, and test scores and GPAs are a much more efficient way to use the limited staff/manpower hours they have. 

    essays become important in a couple of ways that don’t apply to the vast majority of students: at elite colleges which can afford lots of admissions officers to read them; in the consideration of scholarships by departmental committees, that most students will not be considered for, which are read most often by people who don’t work in admissions, or only tangentially and not as admissions decision makers; and at for-profit colleges, which are looking for material to use in their advertising. 

    i loved reading the ballsy essays which didn’t read like they had been lifted from a “how to get into college” website or self-help book. they were few and far between; so many students think that getting into college is a formulaic process and don’t really care about if the school to which they are applying is a good fit for them intellectually, socially, and economically. nor is a college degree the guarantee of a good job it once was. increasingly college is a way for unscrupulous mega-schools or for-profit “centers of learning” to siphon off thousands while providing something that can barely be called an “education.” 

    i hate being this cynical, but i remember the golden years of universities and colleges in america, and those days are gone. still, if you’re sweating your essay because you’re applying to a school/for a scholarship in which is might actually get read closely: go for it. forget what all the advice books say and just write your heart/soul/true passion. the admissions officer reading it will appreciate and remember you favorably for it. 

    but please: don’t lift it off the internet, and for Ganesh’s sake proofread it. i am appalled at the horrible use of english coming from so many students graduating today. 

  • Willy Occam

    Totally agree with this.  I am a department chair who reads essays for all graduate applicants of our program, and these essays are perhaps the most revealing and interesting part of the application materials (the good ones, at least… meaning those that aren’t the generic paint-by-numbers statements).  Reading the really good ones, I’m embarrassed to think of the essay I wrote to get into college (ah, so young and naive back then…)!

  • John Sargeant

    Thanks for the shout out.

    How I stood out on my UCAS form … Laser printed my statement. It was meant to be hand written, but as they were new I felt it would make me stand out.

    Speaking to the admissions tutor what helped though was that he had never heard of my secondary school before. As far as he was concerned, that with my grades helped.

  • Grumble F Kitty

    To be fair, I doubt many 18 year olds have a concept of a this fit for them, academically and/or socially. I sure as heck didn’t. It took failing out of one school, and trying my hand at another to grasp that different schools are truly completely different, and might have different fits. If I had started out at the second school, I probably wouldn’t have failed, but how could I know that?

  • The Captain

    Ah yeaaaa, that might be a great idea for some people, but some of us had to lie.

    Dear XXXXX University
    I would love to attend your fine university to experience the amazing amount of bands you get booked in the area, the famous halloween block parties, one of the largest girl to guy ratios in the state, the laid back hippie atmosphere, the famous spring block parties, your proximity to other universities that many of my friends are going to attend, the famous summer block parties, and of course the open air drug market. Your lack emphasis on GPA is also a plus.

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

    You know, I went to the Univ. of St Andrews in Scotland, and this was the essay they asked us to write. What do you want to study, why do you want to study it, why do you want to study it here? None of the weird preciousness that’s evidently now expected of college essays in the United States.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i was pretty fucking stoopid at 18 too. so i hear ya.

    but the difference today is called “the internet” and “student satisfaction surveys” “rate your professor” sites that are written for, and by, the under 25yo applicant/students. 

    if kids today can find the latest in manga porn, snorg tees, phone apps and pimple cremes, they can do a little research into the schools to which they are applying. there are whole groups of campus organizations devoted to helping applicants make a more informed choice, even! with free, free websites. 

    i guess i’m just bitter and jealous like a lot of oldsters get to be as they get, you know, old. i can only imagine what better choices i might have made if instead of waiting for weeks and months using snail mail, and having to go to the library to do incredibly time consuming dead tree research after school, and writing letters to people who never wrote me back, and all the rest of it that i had to endure as a back country applicant who had no idea what schools were like… yeah, google would’ve been damn useful to me then, and i don’t want to hear it from those too lazy to use it now. 

    heh, /insert barefoot, in the snow, uphill bothways comment here

  • C Peterson

    … but instead of writing an admissions essay packed with random achievements to sell themselves…

    Is that what college essays look like these days? Just in the UK, or in the U.S. as well?

    It’s been 35 years since I wrote my own college essays, and all were to very elite schools, but I have no recollection of their themes being expected to revolve around personal achievements. My essays were very much along the lines of why I wanted to attend the particular schools, with much emphasis on my interests and the schools’ curricula.

  • vexorian

    It is too bad that you probably need to spend many years in academy and life to come up with an essay like that.

    I wish I joined a college that at least asks for essays.  :/

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    This is how I felt when filling out my transfer applications a couple months ago

    “Why do you want to attend here”

    Because you happen to be one of the best known colleges in the state that I want to live in and you also offer some very nice financial packages. You’re school is located in sunny California where I will hopefully never have to see any snow ever again. 

  • Annie

    In my college admissions essay, I wrote about my past failures.  I then used that as a segue as to why I wanted to attend the particular school, as I knew I had so much to learn on the subject.  In all honesty, this was probably out of desperation, as I had very few accomplishments at the age of 18. ;-)

  • Guest

     It’s not that there isn’t information about schools – it’s that it’s hard to determine its use. Like, I remember applying – and people made a big deal of whether you want to go to a small school or a big school, or where in the country, or so on. It’s not that it was hard to see that schools were different and had different fits, but it WAS basically impossible for me to know where I personally would fit.

    It’s like picking a set of clothes – you can look up a bunch of measurements of the clothes, but unless you’ve measured YOURSELF, that information doesn’t help at all. And how the hell am I supposed to know whether I’ll prefer a small school or a big school? I had no idea. Still don’t, have any idea how somebody makes that decision, other than trying it out and seeing whether it works.

  • walkamungus

    No college essay here. Graduated high school, filled out hometown university paperwork (hometown university required by law to accept any high school graduate in the state), went to college.

  • allein

    I went to a small school; I got the viewbook from somewhere, in the mass of college info that just showed up in my mailbox; had never even heard of the place before, but something about it just said “you want to come here.” My other options were state universities (it came down to what kind of financial aid they offered; my school was out of state and private) and I wasn’t drawn to any of them. I was right. 

    I vaguely remember writing an essay but I haven’t a clue what it said.

  • Jonathan

    Discourse quotation marks are important for capturing the illocutionary intent of the writer.  I’m sure you’d agree that if it were replaced by a full stop, the meaning would be quite different.  Therefore, it seems as if you are peddling your pedantic descriptivism in order to feel superior to Richard Dawkins.

  • Sindigo

    Hey, Oxford’s over-subscribed. They’re probably looking for reasons to reject applicants. I’d be more careful.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    when i used to blog, once a year i’d publish the essay for applicants. in addition to my points above, here are some things i think applicants should keep in mind.  ideally their high school college counselors are telling them all this, but i’ve learned that often is not the case.

    ask yourself, and rank in importance
    -what kind of student you are (hard working, tending to the lazier side of life, in the middle, highly curious, often bored, etc)
    -what kind of instruction is your favorite (lab, Socratic, question and answer, emphasis on reading and self direction, etc)
    -what kinds of things do you like to do outside the classroom (party, play sports, spend time in nature, shopping, working a job, nothing much, etc)
    -how comfortable are you with different kinds of people? people with views and backgrounds nothing like your own?
    -do you like being part of a big crowd, or do you prefer more intimate settings?
    -how far away from home can you be and still be comfortable?
    -do you want to travel as part of your education?
    -do you want a liberal arts education, or a sharp focus on the field you intend to study?
    -how important is it to you that your friends and family will have heard of the school you choose? is it important to you that your school has a reputation for something like sports, famous people who’ve gone there, etc?
    -make sure you apply to a variety of schools, that way if you find out one kind really isn’t what you want, you can transfer to one that better suits your needs more easily.

    then go to the school’s website and find out how well it matches your desires. most schools have student outreach groups, send them an email and ask them questions about their experience and satisfaction level. 

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Therefore, it seems as if you are peddling your pedantic descriptivism in order to feel superior to Richard Dawkins

    Finally, someone who understands what Teh Internet is for!

  • pagansister

    I can’t even remember if I had to write one to get into the State 4 year college I attended.  It was a very long time ago!!    My daughter had to write one when she applied to one of the State colleges she attended.     However, I can’t imagine that all those are read by anyone.   Hundreds of students apply and all of those essays are read?  Really?   Maybe only the ones sent in by the students that are perhaps on the short list of qualified students.