Kalamazoo College Admissions Officer Talks About Common Application Essays

April 27, 2013.  Essay Coaching recently spoke with Eric Staab, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Kalamazoo College. We wanted to learn more about his thoughts about writing college essays for the new Common Application, currently accepted by 488 colleges and universities.

[Read more about the new Common Application Essay Prompts here.]

What do you think about the new Common Application essay prompts, which will be in effect August 1, 2013?

For me, an essay is an essay.  Prompts can stimulate thoughts, but the way I read the essay will be the same, regardless of the essay question.  I’m not too concerned about how the essay questions are changing, and that there is no longer is an option for “topic of your choice.”  An applicant can look at prompt number 1 or 2, and find a way to write the essay they want to write, and find a way to achieve that goal.  I don’t think that these questions will limit a student’s choices.

How will the change in essay length (250-650 words) affect you?

I’m embracing the minimum.  By enforcing a minimum, the Common Appliction will help us weed out weak applicants who throw together something at the last minute.

How do you evaluate essays?

The way I read the essay is that I’m not looking to see if a student has answered the prompt, I’m looking to see if the student has strung together sentences that are coherent, grammatically sound, and tell me something about himself or herself as an individual.  I’m not interested in looking at something a student wrote for an English class or history class.  Submitting something like that doesn’t do them any favor.

We score the essay.  We are not professional writers and don’t pretend to be.  Yet we need to assess the essay. One thing that lowers scoring is if there is nothing in the essay that is insightful.  Essays must be well written and informative.

Do essays make a difference in getting admitted?

It’s rare that an essay can get someone denied—it has happened once here—but I’ve seen many cases where borderline students become admitted because of their essay.  This is a student’s opportunity to say why he or she doesn’t look like a traditional student, and also an opportunity to explain something about their transcript.  For example, if a student’s grades were lower one semester, the student can discuss how the family had a stressful financial situation for six months, and it affected his ability to focus on schoolwork.

What is your advice to students for finding a topic that works for them.

Great question!  My advice is to write from the heart—if it doesn’t feel important, if it doesn’t help college admissions officers get to know them, it probably isn’t the right topic.

Do you think there are any red flag topics, such as sports, religion or camp?

Sports—These essays can be monotonous or informative.  One suggestion is to write about what sports means to you.

Religion—There are many religious events that students have that they might think appropriate for question 5, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”  However, when you write about religion you run the risk that the essay reader won’t connect with what you are writing about. If you are applying to a secular school, the reader may or may not be religious—and they may or may not agree with the student’s political or religious views.  A student should keep this in mind when writing the essay.

Camp—Camp essays, like sports essays, can be dull or enlightening.  An example of more informative camp essays are the ones about a person a student met at camp and how that person affected the student.

Any last bit of advice?

Get to know your college admissions officer! We love to talk with prospective students.

In appreciation

Our gratitude to Mr. Staab for this interview.  Read more about Kalamazoo College here and in the book Colleges Change Lives, by Loren Pope.

Need Help?

Need more assistance with writing your college application essay? Essay Coaching offers a unique, professional service.  Write debbie@essaycoaching.com or fill out our easy appointment request form. We will set up a phone, email, or skype appointment with you for a free consultation. We work with students in the U.S and internationally, with excellent results. Essay Coaching: We educate and motivate. You create.