What Do Universities Look For? 15 Quotes from Admissions Directors and Deans

Ever wonder admissions officers and directors think when they read applications?

Here are 15 quotes directly from admissions officers on what makes a student stand out.

  1. “Most admissions officers will tell you that the personal statement is their absolute favorite part of the application. It’s really a chance for us to get to know who you are, and it’s really your major opportunity to speak up for yourself . . . [It is] your chance to say, ‘Hello, this is me, and here’s what matters to me and here’s what I’d like to tell you about myself.”
    Marcia Landesman, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University

  2. “I like reading a personal story that is tied to real life.  I like it when I can hear a student’s voice.  Storytellers are always good.”
    Kim Bryant, Assistant Director of Admissions, University of Michigan

  3. Our admissions officers are looking for something that is authentic and imperfect, and somebody who is thinking differently.”
    Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania

  4. “More than anything, I want to encourage students to write from the heart. Use the words that come naturally to you–avoid the thesaurus. Some of the worst college essays I’ve read were actually written quite well in terms of grammar, sentence structure, and organization, but the student’s unique voice had been lost through editing feedback from a well-intentioned adult. There is no voice more charming to an admissions reviewer than the natural writing voice of a high school senior.”
    Azure Brown, former Senior Admissions Evaluator for the University of California

  5. “[T]ry to convey your voice and style in your words. This is the one spot on your application where your personality gets to shine, so don’t treat this like a formal school assignment.”
     Jeannine Lalonde, Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Virginia

  6. “It’s true that your voice is what we are looking for. When you write your college essay, use your authentic voice. If you’re a serious person, write your essay with a serious voice. If you’re a funny person, be funny. If you’re not a funny person, your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time.”
    Ken Anselment, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Lawrence University

  7. “The tone does not have to be formal, and the language does not have to be particularly sophisticated. In fact, sometimes those can get in the way of the reader getting a sense of you. You should approach it as if it were a conversation you were having with an adult who is particularly interested in what you have to say. Not as casual as if you were speaking with a friend or classmate, but not as formal as if it were a paper you were writing for an assignment. If you read your essay out loud, and it sounds like something you’d say to an adult sitting across from you listening to you with interest, you’ll be on the right track.”
    Christopher Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Duke University

  8. “The best essays are the ones where we don’t just want to admit the student, we want to take them out for coffee once they’re here. We’re not admitting academic machines—we’re admitting classmates and roommates and kids who will make thoughtful contributions to our community.”
    Macy Lenox, Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Virginia

  9. “The essay is more of an opportunity for the applicant to share their character, unique passions and interests, and meaningful experiences.”
    Liz Cheron, Associate Director for Admissions, Northeastern University

  10. “I’m interested in who you are, and why I should accept you as an admissions counselor. What makes you interesting is a really important aspect of your essay”
    Matthew Boyce, Senior Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, George Mason University

  11. “Who are you? It’s about being reflective about your life, about your experiences, about what you’re doing.  I always tell students it’s not the ‘what’ you’re doing, but the ‘how and why’ you are doing them because I can clearly see ‘what’ you’re doing, but ‘how and why,’ I can’t see that, I can’t jump into your mind.  So when I put down your application, I want to feel like I just stepped out of your life.”
    Eddie Picket, Assistant Director of Admissions, Tufts University

  12. “The biggest mistake is simply to rehash your resume. It’s lazy and not creative. There’s ample amount of real estate on any application for you to talk about your resume-like experiences in other sections. The essay is your forum to tell an admissions officer and committee a story.” 
    Shawn Abbott, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Admissions, New York University

  13. “I’ve always enjoyed essays that enable me to learn about the applicant’s personality. Whether that’s an essay about a love (or hatred) of cheese, a desire to learn multiple languages, or to study environmental engineering — I like learning how a student thinks.”
    Christina DeCesare, former Associate Director of Admissions, New York University

  14. “We always said when I was an admissions officer, we want it to be so personal to the student that you couldn’t put anyone else’s name on that essay and have it still be true about that other student.”
    Grace Kim, former admissions officer, Stanford University

  15. “The essay is a unique opportunity to share your story and what is meaningful or important to you. Write about a topic that helps the university understand you as a unique individual. Write about how you would contribute to the campus community.”
    Michael Davis, Associate Director of Admissions, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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