Reading an Admission Essay

by Joshua Henry

In the three years that I worked as an Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Admission at the College of William & Mary, I estimate that I read more than 7,000 college essays. Yet, when students, parents or counselors ask, “What makes a good essay?”, I’m not able to launch into a concrete description of the perfect piece of writing that will win the heart of an admission officer. There’s not one attribute or even a list of qualities that guarantees a good essay. A good essay is an informative and engaging piece of writing that effectively conveys whether or not an applicant’s personality is a match for the institution to which he or she is applying – not a simple task, I know.

Usually, I would read the essay after going through the student’s personal, family and extracurricular information, but before reviewing their transcript and letters of recommendation. I approached the applicant’s writing with a fundamental knowledge of his or her background but without any prejudices based on his or her academic record. What I hoped to learn from the essay was more about the student’s character and personality than I could infer from the combination of hometown, high school setting, activities and interests.

Start Strong

Due to the high volume of applications and essays I read on a daily and weekly basis, it was important for an essay to start strong. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a shocking opening line, but if the first few sentences presented the promise of a compelling personal story or demonstrated that the applicant was a strong writer, there was a good chance that I would take my time carefully reading the rest of the essay. If, on the other hand, the first few sentences read bland or failed to capture my interest, I’d work through the rest of the essay quicker and with less attention.


I always read an essay scouring for personal revelations – insights that would enable me to better understand who the applicant is. They could be humorous, evocative or sincere. They could describe an experience, explain a point of view, or just describe some unique and endearing personality quirks. Whatever the focus and tone of the essay was, I wanted it to add substantive information to the application. It could elaborate on an activity, trait or achievement referenced elsewhere, but I did not want the essay to rehash what I already read – I wanted to discover something new.

I also read essays to gauge an applicant’s writing ability. Writing is an important part of the curriculum across all subjects at William & Mary, as it is at most colleges and universities across the country. I wasn’t dissecting students’ grammar and vocabularies when reading essays, but it was important to me that the writing was refined, flowed nicely and demonstrated an ease with language. Poor writing might raise concern for the student’s academic ability, while a careless composition could be a turnoff to an otherwise strong application.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Until I began keeping a blog, I did not practice personal reflective writing on a regular basis. It’s not easy and I sympathize with all students attempting to encapsulate themselves in 500 characters or less. Like most activities, reflective writing becomes easier with practice. Start keeping a journal or maintaining a blog that you feel comfortable sharing with others. The more time and energy you invest, your writing will surely improve, and a good journal or blog entry could easily become an outstanding college essay.

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