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‘Authenticity is what we look for’: Admissions officers share the inside scoop.

We touched base with some of the top schools in the country to get you the inside scoop. Hear from Princeton, Stanford, ASU Barrett, and UT Austin admissions officers!

They had a lot to say, and here are our big take-aways:

No “banned topics”- but rules of common sense apply (avoid sharing the story about your favorite felony)

Keep in mind that most universities are “mandated reporters” and must report suspected abuse.

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Responses can be in the form of poems, screenplays, mathematical equations – just be sure you’re addressing the prompt.

Using artificial intelligence is not smart–because authenticity is ultimately what sells.

Humans read every essay – a computer program does not screen applicants

Admissions officers are trained to approach essays in a non biased way–so don’t be afraid to share a strong opinion or allegiance if it's significant to you.

Most importantly: you shouldn’t be losing sleep over college applications. Everything will work out as it should.

Now let’s dive in.

Dom Olivera, one of 23 admissions officers for Princeton University, said not a lot has changed over the years.

“All schools look at the essays in a similar way. Who a student is as a person and how they might contribute,” Olivera said.

“Granted, different schools think of contributions in different ways,” he said. “But we’re all trying to fill in the blanks about who they are as a person.”

Princeton admissions officers examine how the essay addresses three main questions:

  • How does a student contribute in our classrooms?

  • How does a student contribute on our campus?

  • How does a student contribute to our community?

“Who will they be as a roommate, classmate, neighbor, friend? Every residential school will think about those things,” Olivera said.

‘Be yourself’

A great college essay will address these questions using subtext and experiences to show the university who they are. And the topics and approaches are limitless.

In fact, Keith, an ASU Barrett college admissions officer, says prompts are really just “springboards”. They're made to speak to a wide audience and get students thinking about the story they want to tell.

Some college essay tutors or services tell students to steer clear of some “overdone” topics, such as sports injuries, moving, clubs, missions or camp experiences. Except for the “obviously” inappropriate topics, this is not true. Admissions officers know that most applicants are only 17 or 18 years old and have limited life experiences.

Veronica, the coordinator of recruitment, initiatives, events, and outreach for the University of Texas at Austin, said that as long as students are responding to the topic, any topic is fair game–to an extent.

“I would tell students we are mandated reporters–if there is any indication of abuse or has happened, we need to let the authorities know,” she said.

Veronica underscored the holistic nature of the application. It’s not just a test score, or a GPA, or an activity that will ensure admission.

Princeton’s Oliveras, who reads admission essays from applicants from Connecticut, Florida, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, estimates that he’s read more than 10,000 essays during the last four years. And the most successful ones follow one simple rule.

“Be yourself in the essay,” he said. “Chances are, you will write about something that someone else has written…and that’s OK. At the end of the day, all that matters is how well it is written…how well it separates you.

“And how well we get to know you.”

Topics about relationships, particularly romantic relationships, are typically “not successful essays” because teens typically don’t have the life experience to write knowledgeably about romance, Olivera added.

This requirement of honesty and specificity is why many admission officers are not concerned about Chat GPT and other artificial intelligence; even the most specific instructions to the chatbot yield vague essays that do not help students’ candidacy.

“We expect that all of the work [will] be their own work,” said Olivera, noting that his own attempts to create a college essay using artificial intelligence has been “bad”.

“At the end of the day, authenticity is what we look for.”

That’s why rumors that colleges use artificial intelligence to screen college essays are absolutely false.

“We read every essay,” Oliveras said. “Automating the process is a disservice to the student and, ultimately, the university.”

The same can be said at ASU Barrett - Keith also confirms that their faculty and staff review all applications themselves.

‘There are no trick questions’

Many universities, such as Stanford, practice “holistic” admission; “each piece in your application is reviewed as part of an integrated and comprehensive whole,” reads the Stanford University admissions overview.

The practical upshot?

“There is no right or wrong answer,” said Rebecca Warren, admission public relations coordinator at Stanford University of Stanford’s supplemental questions.

Stanford, as with many major universities with competitive admission processes, ask students to complete supplemental essays, usually ranging from 25 to 300 words. In addition to the common application essay, Stanford asks for three 250-word and five 50-word essays.

“These are not trick questions,” said Warren, adding that students should consider what they want and who they are--not what they think the university is seeking.

Still, students should spend time researching the university and its opportunities. Stanford, for instance, offers research and grants for undergraduates, offering students a chance to “take an idea and run with it,” Warren said.

“Students may not know what they want to do, and that’s OK,” Warren said.

She added that at Stanford, students do not need to declare a major until after their second year.

And students should never be afraid to contact an admissions office with questions. After all, taking a specific interest in a school and showing a willingness to go above and beyond is generally a trait attractive to colleges, Warren said.

‘Get to know the school’

The same way the university is looking to get to know you, it's just as important you get to know the university. Keith explains that even the application process itself is one way to do that as college admissions are supposed to “reflect the priorities and values of the institution''. Taking that one step further, “the admissions process is going to reflect that place, in a very real way”.

How else can you get to know the school as a prospective student? Keith suggests taking advantage of the virtual world we now live in. Most schools offer virtual tours, and don’t be afraid to reach out to staff - they are a close reflection of the institution itself.

‘Don’t lose sleep over it’

Out of everything Keith from Barrett, impressed upon us, he says the one most important takeaways is that “there is an appropriate amount of caring while making an excellent effort” when it comes to college applications, adding that he has “never spoken to a college admissions officer who thinks a student should be so hung up on that their quality of life is ruined by applying to colleges.”

Calliope Creations’ aligns its philosophy – to partner with students to find their unique voice and authentic selves – to admissions officers’ advice.

That’s why we start with the self, not the prompt.

Looking for support to craft an authentic college essay? Learn more about our College Essay Seminar here.

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