Duke, Brown, Rice Weigh in on the College Essay

by Kim Lifton

Christoph Guttentag, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, acknowledges that  the essay may be the most difficult part of the application.

“Most students have not had a chance to do that kind of writing,” Guttentag said during the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference in Denver held earlier this month.

“By the time it comes to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized. I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old.”

The application essay is often the most difficult part of the application, Duke’s Guttentag says.

Wow Writing Workshop‘s team of application essay writing coaches interviewed dozens of college admissions experts about the importance of the college application essay during the NACAC conference.

Whether large, small, private or public, university admissions representatives all say the essay is an opportunity for students to showcase their personalities.

What are colleges looking for? Stories that are genuine, interesting, specific and written in a 17-year-old voice.

What  was the common theme on the essay at NACAC? Give the college of your dreams a movie trailer, not an entire script, so admissions staff  can know who you are. Write it yourself!

“Students do not need to compile an entire season into an essay,” said Lorenzo Gamboa, associate director of undergraduate admission for Santa Clara University. “Just give us one place, one time, one moment, and that will do it for you.

“The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school.”

Gamboa says the best essays focus on “one place, one time, one moment.”

Tamara Siler, senior associate director for admission at Rice University in Houston, agreed that the essay should show something unique about the student. But, she cautioned, unique does not necessarily mean earth-shattering.

“We want your personal, specific story so your unique voice comes through,” Siler said. “Everybody has had some uniqueness. Students think it has to be a discussion of their most traumatic experiences. If you have a relatively peaceful existence, that is fine. Focus on a moment you feel has defined you as a person, and as a student.”

Remember, a little reflection goes a long way.

Brown University‘s Assistant Director of Admissions Matt Price said Brown reads essays looking for “someone who gives us insight into who they are, not what they think we want to see.”

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop,  which recently launched Wow Online – College Essay, the first self-guided online tutorial for college application essay writing.  Lifton writes a weekly blog about the college application essay and the journey to college admission.