November 15th is probably one of my favorite days of the year in the office. November 15th is when I get to start reading applications for the next class. Very few things in the office excite me more than reading the applications of the students that I’ve met on my travels. A student’s college application gives me a snapshot of their life and while there are many components to an application, there are two in particular that I enjoy reading the most: the transcript and the essay. I believe that these components tell me the most about a student.
An admissions counselor can tell a lot about a student through their transcript. The student’s course selection through their high school years tells me a lot about their personality. Usually I can tell what subject a student is strongest in and which subject areas need a little more work. The transcript can also tell me how determined a student is. For instance, a student that is still taking a full course load in their senior year tells an admissions committee that the student is committed to their education and steadfast in their determination to end high school on a strong note.
While the transcript tells the admissions committee about the student’s academic life, the essay is the only part of the application where a student has the opportunity to tell us about their life outside of the classroom. We want to hear about your life, we want to know what makes you happy, what makes you sad, why you like to do the things you like to do. Many students think that we are looking for the next award winning short story, when really we just want to know that you can write in a clear and concise manner.
Often, students assume that they have to make their essays stand out by telling the admissions committee about a life changing experience. At 17, how many life changing experiences can one really have? Some of my favorite essays have been seemingly mundane. The most winning essays come from students who write about things that they are truly interested in no matter how “ordinary” those interests may be.
Recently, I sat down with a student who told me that he was writing his essay about playing football in high school. Later in the conversation, he told me that his family owned a third generation elevator business. For the next 15 minutes, he gave me a full dissertation about the history of elevators. His whole face lit up, his posture changed just talking about elevators! I have literally never met anyone so excited about elevators. At the end of our conversation, I told him to scrap that essay about football; it was very obvious that elevators would make a better essay topic. Every student has an elevator-like passion within them; sometimes it just takes a little discernment and thought to figure out what that is.
While I prepare to read another year of applications, I understand that this process fills students with anxiety. I challenge you to think of your application as a testament of your hard work. All of those hours studying and completing your Eagle Scout project are things you should be proud to show off. And when in doubt, call your admissions counselor!
Sue Chen is an Associate Director of Admissions at Saint Joseph’s University. She has the pleasure of working with students who come from high schools in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, as well as most of the West Coast. She has had the opportunity to facilitate many service immersion trips during her time at Saint Joseph’s. May 1st is her favorite day of the year because it’s the day she finds out which students have chosen Hawk Hill as their new home.