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5 Things Admissions Officers Look For in the Application Essay


essayWithin your college application, your personal statement is your one opportunity for the admissions officer to “meet you”, to visualize the person behind the numbers. While no essay can save an unqualified application, an outstanding essay can push an otherwise mediocre application into the “yes” pile.

However, writing a good application essay is hard. Many students write essays that are too cliché or too shallow; others write essays that are impersonal and uninformative; some are even unfortunate enough to write essays that cause their own rejection.

This isn’t surprising. The application essay is drastically different from the typical high school assignment—deeply personal, rather than merely informative.

Well, let me give you a glimpse through the eyes of an admissions officer. Working for the admissions office of a university with single-digit admission rates, I have reviewed numerous applications and “graded” a wide variety of application essays. Here are five things a college admissions officer looks for:

1. Can the applicant write?

The first thing the application essay does is to prove that you can write well. In college, you are going to write, write, write and write—and the application essay allows the admission officer to judge whether you will be able to cope.

On a structural level, your essay should be well organized and coherent. It should have a well-thought-out idea development and be properly paragraphed.

Your writing should be engaging and expressive. A big part of this depends on your personal style, but in general, you should use the active voice and vary your sentence structures. A note though: essays on both ends of the extreme usually don’t work—essays which are too gimmicky and stylized, or too academic, rigid and formal.

Lastly, of course, your essay should be free of grammar and spelling mistakes.

2. What does the essay say about the applicant?

This seems like an obvious point, but many applicants end up writing essays that do not actually shed much light on themselves. No matter how beautiful your descriptions are, or how emotionally moving your content is, if you do not relate these thoughts back to yourself as an individual, your essay will be ineffective.

A strong application essay allows us to visualize the applicant behind the numbers, and to know exactly what type of person you are. The essay should make us feel that we have gotten to know you on a personal level, as if we have met you face-to-face.

3. Are there deep, personal reflections?

To allow the admissions officer to get to know you, your writing needs to include reflections that are deep and personal. Without these reflections, an essay will seem shallow or even generic. Conversely, mature reflections will bring personality and depth to a topic that might seem commonplace at first (for example, community service).

To put it another way, the most important thing in the essay is not the “what”, but the “why”. We have the “what” from the list of your extracurriculars, scores and awards. We now want to know the “why”, the motivations that drive you.

This is also why it is a bad idea to try to cover too much in your essay. To put it yet another way, while the other sections of your application focuses on describing the breadth of your activities, in your personal statement, you should aim to reveal depth in one area.

4. What will the applicant bring to the community?

So what should you highlight about yourself? Well, the admission officer wants to discover what you can contribute to the college. If your application allows the reader to visualize you as an active, contributing and successful member of the community, you are in.

This does not mean that you need to be mind-blowingly unique. The qualities you can most effectively highlight are the genuine ones. A good essay requires a good deal of introspection, to arrive at a keen self-knowledge of what your strong points are, and how to best portray them.

On the flip side, you should avoid topics (and writing tone) that portrays you in a negative light. Be careful of writing about failures that highlight negative characteristics. Stay away from more controversial and potentially offensive topics. Avoid sounding naïve, lacking in self-awareness, or patronizing (a major problem, especially in essays about community service).

5. Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?

The advice goes that you should not rehash the rest of your application in your essay. For example, if you have already included multiple debate activities and awards, your essay should not be about debate.

The caveat to this is that while the specific activities should vary, there should be a consistent portrayal of personal qualities. If your essay represents you as a boundary-pushing activist, but the other parts of your application portrays you as respectful and soft-spoken, flags will be raised.

An application is a lens into a single person, so consistency is important. You should thus consider your application holistically, and put some thought into how you want to represent yourself, and what characteristics you want to highlight. Good luck!


Today’s Guest Blogger 

David works for the admission office of a university with a single-digit acceptance rate. In his spare time, he provides expert coaching to students on their college application essays. Visit his website, www.essayscoach.com to learn more about how to write outstanding essays.

What Is Your Teen Doing Online?


what is your teen doing online

Image from liahonacademy.com

The best thing about the internet is a wealth of information available at your fingertips for college prep. You can find college advice, testing help, college visit information, financial aid information and everything you need to know about individual colleges. But with every good thing, there are dangers lurking in the shadows. Researching college topics is good, other social media activities might not be as safe–what is your teen doing online?

My grandsons are already familiar with their parents’ smartphones. My 5 year old grandson can access games, turn Netflix on and off, and use Facetime on his own. My 2 year old grandson knows that the phone gets him access to cartoons anywhere, anytime. I can’t imagine what it will be like when they both become teenagers because it’s a very scary online world. If you don’t believe so, read this article from Smart College Visit: A Parent’s Greatest Fear.

The Liahona Academy did some real research about teen’s online activity on social media. Based on this information, if you aren’t taking an active role in your teen’s online life you are burying your head in the sand. Years ago teens snuck out of the house to engage in risky behavior. Today it’s easier than it has ever been with the use of a smartphone to hide online activity from parents.

If you don’t believe me, here are some sobering statistics from the above mentioned study:

  • 55% of teens have given out personal info to someone they don’t know
  • 29% of teens have been stalked or contacted by a stranger
  • 29% of teens have participated in cyber bullying
  • 24% of teens have had private or embarrassing info made public without permission
  • 22% have been cyberpranked


  • Only 34% of parents check their teen’s social network sites

Are those stats cause for concern? Based on these responses those stats should be:

  • 67% of teenagers say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents
  • 43% of teens say they would change their online behavior if they knew that their parents were watching them
  • 39% think their online activity is private from everyone, including parents
  • 20% of teens think their parents have no idea what they are doing online
  • 18% have created a private email address or separate social networking profile
  • 10% have unlocked parental controls to disable filtering


  • 38% would feel offended if they found out their parents were spying on them with parental controls

It’s time for parents to wake up. It’s no longer acceptable to ignore your teen’s online activity.. They may be the best behaved, best mannered and most respectful teenagers. But there is a world out there full of online predators waiting to pounce on naive teens who post on social media.

What social media tools are teens using?

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Pinterst
  • Pheed
  • YouTube
  • Kik
  • 4chan
  • Askfm
  • Vine
  • Tumblr
  • Snapchat
  • Instagram

For more information about each of these and how they pose a threat to your teenager, you can access the infographic here: What Your Teen is Doing on Social Media. The infographic also provides information on how to get involved, how to monitor online activity, how teens hide their browser activity from their parents, and most importantly, some monitoring tools for parents. Parents will also find 10 Online Activities Every Parent Needs to Talk About With Their Teens.

This is one of the most concise and helpful infographic I have seen informing parents about online activity and giving tools to help them monitor it. You wouldn’t allow a predator or stranger in your home, don’t let it happen on social media.

10 “No Essay” Scholarships with March Deadlines


"no essay" scholarships

It’s Scholarship Friday again and today I’m sharing 10 “no essay” scholarships with March deadlines:

Toyota TeenDrive365 Video Challenge
Amount: Up to $15,000
Challenge is open to legal U.S. residents who are at least 13 years of age and are enrolled in grades 9-12 who create a 60-90 second video that demonstrates the importance of safe teen driving.

Deadline: March 7, 2016

“Frame My Future” Scholarship Contest
Amount: $1,000
Applicant must intend to enroll as a full-time student at a U.S. college or university in the 2015-2016 academic year and be a legal resident; must submit an original creative image that shows “how you want to Frame Your Future!”

Deadline: March 8, 2016

Junior Duck Stamp Contest
Amount: Up to $1,000
Contest is open to students in grades K-12 who attend public, private, or home schools who draw, paint, or sketch a picture of an eligible North American waterfowl species.

Deadline: March 15, 2016 for most states

My Preparedness Story: Staying Healthy and Resilient Video Challenge
Amount: Up to $2,000
Challenge is open to students between the ages of 14 and 23 years of age who submit a short video to YouTube showing how you can help family, friends, and community protect their health during a disaster.

Deadline: March 28, 2016

“Stop Cell Phone Robocals” $1,000 Scholarship
Amount: $1,000
Scholarship is open to graduating high school seniors and current undergraduate students who submit a 140-character statement completing the following sentence: “Cell phone robocalls need to be regulated because..”

Deadline: March 31, 2016

$1,000 Scholarship Sweepstake: High School Edition
Amount: $1,000
Scholarship is open to legal residents of the U.S. who are 13 years of age or older and currently enrolled in a high school. Parents of high school students may also apply by registering on Noodle.com.

Deadline: March 31, 2016

2016 ABA YLD Law Day Art Contest
Amount: Up to $750
Contest is open to students in grades 9-12 in the United States who submit an art piece on the topic: “Miranda: More than Words.”

Deadline: March 31, 2016

Creative Patriot Art Awards
Amount: Up to $10,000
Applicant must be in grades 9-12 and submit an original piece of art to local ladies auxiliary organization that expresses patriotism.

Deadline: March 31, 2016

Superpower Scholarships
Amount: $2,500
Scholarship is open to students 13 years of age or older who are legal residents of the U.S. and are currently enrolled (or will enroll no later than the fall of 2022) in an accredited post-secondary institution of higher education. Applicant must explain in a short written response which superhero or villain they would want to change places with for a day and why.

Deadline: March 31, 2016

Yo Teach! Scholarship
Amount: $3,000
Applicant must show their love for their best professor or teacher by writing and performing a rap with friends about teaching.

Deadline: March 31, 2016

What Are the Alternatives to Traditional College?

traditional college

If traditional college isn’t for everyone, what’s the alternative?

Yesterday I posted an article: “Should Every Child Go To College?” The answer: It’s not for every child and parents shouldn’t push if it isn’t happening. You know your child better than anyone. Think outside the box and help your child find the right path.

Here are some other options beyond the traditional college path:

Community college

Many graduating seniors have decided to take the community college path. They made that choice for several reasons: cost, academic preparation, and the freedom to stay at home for the first few years. Community colleges aren’t just training grounds for technical careers, they are also the first stop for about 4 in 10 of college-bound high school graduates.

A gap year

More and more students are considering a gap year (or gap years) after high school. This time would be to explore career options, travel to discover yourself and gain cultural experience, volunteer for a year in a community service job or abroad, or work with the goal of saving money for college.

The military

While the military is not for everyone, it is a viable option for many students. Not only will you learn discipline, organization, and teamwork, but you will also gain job experience. The military has numerous career options to choose from that will transition into the workforce after your term of service is over. An added benefit is the education benefit veterans receive, allowing you to attend college using government funding.

Work and community college

Another option you might choose is working while attending community college. You can take as few courses as your time permits and ease into the college level courses. Working during community college also allows you to pay for college as you attend, avoiding large amounts of student loan debt.

Trade school or apprenticeship

The trades and/or apprenticeships are certainly overlooked as a path after college. Pursuing a trade ensures job security and future earning potential. You can go to a specific career school such as an art or fashion institute or a culinary institute, or you can work in with a professional learning their trade. Another option would be to consider a college that focuses not only on academics but also on hands on education. One such college is Pennsylvania College of Technology. You can read all about them in these series of articles.


Students can also work at paid or unpaid internships after high school. These internships will help you discover your interests and gain insight into various careers and what training or education you would need. Many employers offer paid education benefits while working and will often hire you as a full time employee after completion of the internship and/or education.

If your student seems unmotivated or uninterested in college have a serious discussion about his plans after high school. Make it clear that he needs a plan and help him formulate that plan. If they become part of the planning process and are involved in the decision making, they will be much happier with their choices.

Should Every Child Go to College?



I published this article about five years ago, but I feel it’s content is still true today. Too many parents push students to go to college when they are not prepared either academically, emotionally or financially. So many students go and fail because college is simply not for them.


I read an article a few years ago in The Atlantic: “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, that gave me some food for thought. It’s been on my mind for quite awhile, especially since I have a close friend who is a financial aid counselor at one of those infamous “for profit” colleges.

She would answer my leading question with a loud and emphatic, “NO”, based on her experience dealing with those who are not prepared to attend college and don’t understand the consequences of borrowing money they can’t pay back. They have been convinced that without a college education, they can’t get a job or pursue a career. They’ve been told by someone that it doesn’t matter how much money you borrow as long as you get that degree. Once you get that degree you can earn enough money to pay back what you’ve borrowed. But we all know that’s not often the case.

In the above mentioned article, the English professor makes an interesting point:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish.

I’ve come to realize that Americans truly are snobs. We brag about what we have and what we have obtained. Like it or not, we are a classist society. We snub our noses at those who haven’t been to college and brag heavily about our numerous degrees as if they are badges of honor. And while graduating from college is an accomplishment, so is learning a trade.

Often, we push our kids to attend college when we know it’s not for them. Why? Because we are a society that measures success by the number of degrees hanging on a wall or the dollar signs that can be found on our bank accounts. It is noble to dream big and education is always a noble goal. But so is being a plumber, a carpenter, a cosmetologist or a civil servant like a police officer or fireman.

What’s my point? My point is that you need to know your child. If they want to go to college and have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful there, then encourage them to go. But if they aren’t interested or motivated, save yourself some heartache, disappointment and money by letting them pursue a trade or career and even consider a college that offers both. There are so many fabulous careers out there that they can do without higher education. You will be happier, they will be happier and they will fill an important role in society. College really isn’t for child.

The Scary Truth About Student Loan Borrowers

student loan borrowers

Earlier this month, LendEDU, a marketplace for student loans and student loan refinancing, decided to survey college student loan borrowers at a nearby college to see how much they knew about their student loan debt. Over the course of a couple days of surveying they confirmed their suspicions. Most of our nation’s current college students don’t understand their student loans or the financial aid process. With permission, they filmed some of the respondents while they asked them a series of questions related to their student loan debt.

At the end of our survey LendEDU decided to package together some of their favorite survey responses into one short video.

Will your child be one of these student loan borrowers?

As a parent, not only will you find this video eye opening and entertaining, but just a bit scary. Educate your student about student loan debt before he signs those financial aid award documents.

For more information on student loans, click here.