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The #1 college essay myth (and what college admissions officers really look for)

The #1 college essay myth (and what college admissions officers really look for)

College essays are not the place to "just tell your story."

It's not that “tell us your story” is wrong for college essays. It’s just severely misleading. 

Yes, college admission offices give this advice all the time. But if you look at how they actually evaluate essays, you’ll see that what they look for goes well beyond “your story.”

This article will walk you through: 

  • why colleges (and sometimes even guidance counselors!) give this misleading advice; 
  • what admissions officers actually look for; and 
  • how to deliver it for them. 

As college essay coaches who’ve helped thousands of applicants get into great colleges each year, we’ve examined the question of why the “tell your story” advice is so ubiquitous, and you need to know what’s really going on. 

Read the Table of Contents to see what we'll cover in this article:

Colleges say they want applicants to tell their story;What college admissions officers really look for;5 traits admissions officers are looking for when evaluating your college essay;Why colleges don't share what they're really looking for
Colleges say they want applicants to tell their story;What college admissions officers really look for;5 traits admissions officers are looking for when evaluating your college essay;Why colleges don't share what they're really looking for

Colleges say they want applicants to tell their story

Let’s go on a journey of discovery through the internet. What advice do colleges give about writing the essays they require?

We found one striking pattern (emphasis added): 

  • [The essay] is an important part of your application because it gives you the chance to tell us your story as an applicant. — BU
  • Tell a good story. Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay. — Tulane Apps 101: Ten Tips for an Epic College Essay.
  • Your transcript and standardized test scores tell your academic story, your extracurricular activities, recommendations, essay(s) and background, tell your personal story. — William & Mary
  • In [successful] essays, students were able to share stories from their everyday lives to reveal something about their character, values, and life that aligned with the culture and values at Hopkins. — Johns Hopkins 
  • Tell your story. Some of my most memorable offers of admission have gone to students who like to color outside the lines. — Canisius College
  • The college application process is a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. You will find out things about yourself, what motivates you and what excites you. This is a passage to an exciting new chapter in your life. We want to get to know you and your story.Muhlenberg College

Here are some videos that popped up as we researched this question:

Wondering what college admissions officers really look for? The message in these videos may differ from reality.

And here’s an article from the Washington Post that ranked high in our search:

True, not every admissions department used the word “story.” 

We also found (emphasis added) —

  • The point of the personal statement is for you to have the chance to share whatever you would like with us. — Harvard
  • Be honest, be open, be authentic—this is your opportunity to connect with us. — MIT
  • These essays are an opportunity to tell us about yourself in your unique voice. — CalTech
  • Essay writing is an excellent opportunity for personal expression and original thought. — Northwestern
  • The authenticity of the writing is what makes it effective. — Johns Hopkins - WaPo article
  • “Imagine UC was a person. If we met face-to-face, what would you want us to know about you? These personal insight questions allow you to tell us. — University of California — see also their video on the topic:

In this category of advice, while the admissions offices don’t use the term “tell your story,” they’re still suggesting that you simply share something interesting about who you are, and connect with them in the way that you would with a friend.

However, when you look at how colleges actually evaluate essays, it turns out that this advice is wrong at worst and incomplete at best. So let’s do that now.

What college admissions officers really look for

Let’s hop back into the internet for another journey of discovery. This time, let’s search for clues about what college admissions officers do when they’re in the process of actually reading your essays.

As some readers know, at Prompt, we’re pretty excited about a lawsuit that made much of Harvard’s admission process public. 

The lawsuit revealed that “share whatever you would like with us,” as the college claims (see above) isn’t necessarily helpful advice. 

Instead, admissions officers review “humor, sensitivity, grit, leadership, integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness and many other qualities” in determining a personal rating for each applicant, according to coverage (emphasis added). 

Yes, this means that Harvard admissions officers give applicants cold, hard numbers based on whether their essays reveal things like grit and courage. So what if, based on their advice, you simply shared an interesting story about your passion for the theater or for playing sports? So that they could get to know you?

You’d be out of luck. Because without specifically focusing on an interesting, authentic story that also reveals something about your character, you’re unlikely to write an essay that they rate highly.

There are also clues that other colleges are looking for more than just a nice story or the “true you.” 

Here are some approaches we found to the process of assessing admission essays:

  • Emory University specifically takes into account “intellectual curiosity and the potential to contribute to community life on campus.” 
  • According to the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, “We expect [applicants] to have high test scores and grades. That’s a given. So another way for us to think about merit for those applicants is, what did they do with that opportunity they were given? How far did they travel in their high school journey?” 
  • “It's quick and easy for candidates to share, and for admissions readers to assess a candidate's 'what,’” says the dean of admissions at Lafayette College, “However, the hope is to find the 'how' and the 'why' behind an applicant's 'what'. If a candidate is a chemistry loving, slam poet who pole vaults, cool, that's 'what' they are. But, 'HOW' and 'WHY' have they become a chemistry-loving, slam poet who pole vaults? Too many candidates stop at the 'what' and do not give the 'how' and the 'why.'”
  • "As an admissions officer, I analyzed students' personalities,” says the former admissions head at Dartmouth. “If … the student came off as arrogant, entitled, mean, selfish, or, on the flip side, funny, charming, generous, witty, I wrote that exact trait in my notes. It's not enough just to be smart at top schools. Students must also show that they'll be good classmates and community builders."
  • “We want to enroll students who will contribute to the life of the campus, so we are eager to see how you have contributed to your high-school community or the community in which you live,” says an officer at Dickinson College.
  • “Applicants who are able to convey that they have spent their high school years exploring different classes, activities and opportunities immediately grab my attention,” says an officer at Drake.
  • According to an officer at DePauw University, “a successful applicant should highlight an ability to overcome obstacles and garner results. It’s about proving you can produce outcomes.” 
  • During the pandemic, 315 admission leaders (including all the heavy-hitters, such as the Ivys), signed a “Care Counts in Crisis” statement, assuring applicants that they most value 5 attributes: self-care; academic work; service and contributions to others; family contributions; and extracurricular and summer activities.

Some supplemental essays also show what colleges value. For example, these are all about intellectual curiosity:

  • Stanford — The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
  • University of Washington — [T]ell us about something that really sparks your intellectual interest and curiosity, and compels you to explore more in the program/area of study that you indicated.

Once you start looking more closely at how colleges actually make their decision, you see that colleges really care about a number of specific characteristics.

5 traits admissions officers look for in your college essay

The point of a college essay is to prove you’ll be successful on campus and beyond. As Emory admissions dean John Latting says, “The whole [admissions] process is about finding potential.”

The way you prove your potential is by showing that you have 5 special characteristics. They go by various names, but at Prompt we’ve boiled them down to:

  1. Drive — going above and beyond what’s expected
  2. Intellectual Curiosity — manifesting your love of learning
  3. Initiative — Changing the status quo
  4. Contribution — Giving back to the community
  5. Diversity of Experiences — Having a unique background or experiences that give you a new perspective.

Go back to the last section and see how often these words (or similar ones) come up — you’ll see that it’s extremely often. 

To take a specific example, here how these characteristics align with the categories unearthed from the Harvard admissions litigation:

  • Grit — that’s Drive
  • Leadership — that’s a combo of Drive, Initiative and Contribution
  • Helpfulness — that’s Contribution
  • Courage — that’s adjacent to Drive and Initiative
  • Kindness — well, that’s Contribution again

Now if you’re carefully comparing this list to the quote above, you’ll notice that we’re missing:

  • humor, 
  • sensitivity, and 
  • Integrity. 

That’s because it’s true that they don’t match up to our 5 Traits. Humor is wonderful if you’ve got it, but “your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time,” to quote the dean of admissions at Lawrence. (Diversity of experiences is similar, in a way, in that it’s a wonderful-to-have, but not something you can force if you just don’t have it.)

Integrity is a must-have — but most good essays around the 5 Traits should demonstrate integrity. Needless to say, any essay that implies a lack of it is a bad essay. As to sensitivity, well, if you’ve got it great. Not sure that one’s really make-or-break.

The point is that your essays aren’t a friendly “get to know you” space. They’re a vital component of your application; the colleges are grading your essays. And to score high you need to write about an experience in which you showed one or more of the qualities that they’re looking for — one or more of the 5 Traits. (If the experience also happens to showcase integrity and a sense of humor, all the better!)

Why colleges don't share what they're really looking for

At Prompt, we study the pronouncements of college admissions officials obsessively. We’ve gotten to know them, we read books about them, we follow them on Twitter. 

We don’t think that college officials are “lying” when they present this advice. Rather, there are many reasons why their advice isn’t as helpful as they probably think it is. Here are a few:

First, as we noted above, the advice to “tell your story” or “get to know us” or “be authentic” isn’t wrong. It’s just misleading because it isn’t clear about what actually gets evaluated. Most admissions officers probably think they’re giving helpful advice.

Second, offices are intentionally vague because it gives them more room to maneuver. If they say they’re looking for X in essays, everyone will write X. They want wiggle room for kids who write Y. 

Third, they may be thinking in different modes when they think about “writing an essay” compared to when they settle down to “evaluate” an essay. In Originals, Adam Grant describes how different these two modes can be. His book describes an experiment that randomly assigned some participants to think like managers and others like creatives. Those in the “manager” mode evaluated novel products correctly only 51% of the time; those in “creative” mode were correct far more often, at 77% of the time.

This is kind of the opposite. Admissions officers likely think broadly when giving advice for writing essays — they might be thinking about how they’d like to read essays, or how great essays are original, or focus on small, everyday topics. But that likely goes out the window when it comes to getting through a stack of essays on their desk and using them to assign “personal scores” that can be used to advance or reject applications. 

Bear in mind how overworked admissions readers are. According to an evaluator at Brown, “[W]e keep up a rigorous reading pace with the regular decision applicant pool. We were expected to read five applications per hour, which equates to 12 minutes per application. In those 12 minutes, I reviewed the application, standardized test scores, the transcript, the personal statement, and multiple supplemental essays — all while taking notes and making a decision on the admissibility of the applicant."

Make sure you write your essay to appeal to that “boring, bureaucratic” admissions officer. The one getting through a pile of essays, on a hungry prowl for qualities that will show success. We’ve got some stats to prove it can make up to a 10x difference in your chances of admission. 

Our team of expert writing coaches have helped 50,000+ student write 90,000+ essays that have boosted their chances of admission. Create an account to use free college essay resources, or explore college essay coaching options today.

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Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing