On September 20th, Expert Admissions hosted a webinar – “Real Talk About College Essays: In Conversation with UChicago and USC” – to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the college admissions process. Our panelists gave us insight into how college applications are read, including what they’re looking for in the personal statement and supplemental essays.
Our guests were Peter Wilson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Nathan Mack, Associate Director of First-Year Recruitment at the University of Southern California. Read highlights of the conversation below.
The Admissions Process: What happens after you hit “submit”?
Every application is read in full. While admissions officers can choose to read the different sections of the applications in any order, at Chicago, it’s typical to look at the high school transcript first. Final decisions at both USC and UChicago are made by committee.
Both UChicago and USC have regional admissions officers who get to know each high school in their territory. This enables each application to be read in context based on the opportunities available and how students took advantage of them. Both schools also have a separate admissions “territory” for homeschool and non-traditional students, rather than assessing these applications by geographic location.
The UChicago and USC representatives emphasized that they are trying to create a well-rounded class in terms of multiple demographic criteria, including academic interest. One point of difference between the two schools is that USC considers intended major more heavily than UChicago does. While UChicago has only one undergraduate college, USC has seventeen, each with their own enrollment targets.
While standardized testing is stressful for students and parents, the importance of test scores on the admissions side was downplayed by both representatives. If test scores are not submitted, no assumptions will be made about why. Chicago’s advice on submitting scores is to look at a school’s mid-50% range; if your scores are at the low end of that range, they may not be the best reflection of your ability, but if they’re at the top of that range, it might be a good indicator that you’ll be successful at the institution to which you’re applying.
The Personal Statement
Many students worry that they need to have experienced a momentous event to write about in their personal statement. But the personal statement doesn’t need to be about something extraordinary. The admissions officers both shared memorable essay topics about relatively mundane topics. UChicago recommends utilizing the additional information section to talk about especially difficult or traumatic experiences and saving the personal statement for revealing more about who you are.
The USC admissions blog has a helpful piece about striking the right tone in your college essays. Try to find a middle ground between professional academic writing and casual journaling. You want to be vulnerable in your essay, but the writing should be polished and well thought out.
- Cliché endings to personal statements that don’t add to the substance of the essay.
- Your writing style and tone don’t match the rest of your application.
- Style and tone changes that appear throughout an essay because it was heavily edited by others.
UChicago advises that students print out their essay before handing it to someone for feedback. That way, you have to input any changes yourself and can ask yourself if they really sound like you. You also avoid inadvertently leaving comments in the document you ultimately submit to colleges!
The supplemental essays are where colleges really start to think about how you will fit into their campus community.
Both USC and UChicago ask students to write supplemental essays about why they want to attend their institutions. These essays should reveal how you will take advantage of the opportunities available to you and why these opportunities matter to you. How will these opportunities further your education? How will they make you a better person?
USC has additional supplemental essays that reflect USC values very closely; answering these questions will demonstrate how you fit into their set of values. UChicago (famously) requires an “extended essay” on an unusual topic. These essays are designed to convey how you think, how you play with ideas, what type of person you are, and what lenses you use to examine ideas.
- Treating supplemental essays like an afterthought.
- Simply repeating information from the website rather than making the supplemental essays about you.
- Copying and pasting from one “why this college” essay to another. The essays need to be specific to each school you’re applying to. You also run the risk of failing to change the name of the school in your essay!
Remember that while the personal statement is common to all your applications, the supplemental essay prompts are chosen by each college. These are the questions they have determined will help them make the best admissions decisions. It’s crucial you put real thought and effort into answering them well.
Tailored advice on your application materials, including essays, is available through our services at Expert Admissions.