A couple of years ago, one of our essay prompts asked prospective students the question “why do you do what you do?” I’m guessing that many of the students who responded to the prompt found themselves wanting to turn the question back on us – why do we in admissions do what we do? First and foremost in their minds – especially as they put the finishing touches on their essays in the wee hours of the morning – may have been, “why do you ask us to write admissions essays in the first place?”
Fair enough. We should be able to explain why we ask for the essay, how we evaluate it, and how it will be used in your admission decision. After all, the application process can be stressful enough. Trying to complete a writing task for which the expectations and purpose are unclear only adds unnecessary stress.
You have probably been told by many universities that the admission essay is a way for them to “get to know you.” (Gulp!) In fact, we are guilty of saying the same thing to many of our prospective students. And it’s true, it is a way for us to learn a little bit more about you. But it’s not the only way. All the parts of your application help us get to know you – your letters of recommendation, your transcript, your extracurricular activities. Placing undue burden on the essay alone to fulfill this function isn’t fair – to you or your essay. Furthermore, we neither expect you to try, nor believe it possible, to distill the very essence of your being into a mere 500 words (or a college application, for that matter). It isn’t even our place to ask. And finally, we should clarify that “getting to know you” doesn’t require you to write an essay that bares your soul or divulges your deepest secrets. In fact, you don’t even have to write about yourself if you don’t want to; our Director of Admissions, Stephen Farmer, thinks some of the best essays have come from students writing about something or someone other than themselves.
But one of the biggest problems about giving so much attention to this getting-to-know-you business is that it obscures what is arguably an even more important purpose of the admissions essay, which is that it allows us to assess your writing ability. You will write in college, a lot. Regardless of your major. You will write after college too, a lot. And how well you write helps us determine how well you will perform all the tasks required of you in the classroom – whether in English Composition, Biology 101, or International Business. All of which is to say, the criteria by which we will assess your essay are undoubtedly the same criteria your teachers have used to evaluate much of your writing in high school: how well is your essay organized? Do you communicate a main idea? Are you using standard grammar, spelling and punctuation? Do you demonstrate appropriate and varied use of vocabulary? If you swerve from any of these expectations, do you do so purposefully and effectively? And finally, does your essay communicate your unique voice? Which should be good news! This little admissions essay exercise is nothing new after all. You’ve already done this, time and time again. No sweat.
A final word about why we do what we do. Most of us chose to work in admissions because we enjoy helping students find the best in themselves, whether that happens here at Carolina or another great institution. So when we read the many parts of your application, of which the essay is just a small one, we are always looking for the best in you. And we’re always grateful that you chose to apply.
Jennifer L. Kretchmar, Ph.D.
Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for Research