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Critique of Sophie's College Admission Essay

A Discussion of the Essay "The Allegany County Youth Board"

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Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University

moyix / Flickr

Before I get into the details of the essay, it's important to look at the schools to which Sophie applied: Bard College, Dickinson College, Hampshire College, Oberlin College, Smith College, SUNY Geneseo and Wesleyan University. Each of these, including the one state school, is a relatively small college with an undergraduate focus and a liberal arts and sciences core curriculum. All of these schools use a holistic approach to their admissions decisions; that is, each school is carefully thinking about the whole applicant, not just the applicant's grades and test scores. These are schools that are looking for more than smart students. They also want excellent campus citizens who will foster an open and questioning intellectual community. For this reason, the essay is a remarkably important part of Sophie's application.

Now let's get into the nitty-gritty of Sophie's essay.

The Topic

Don't be misled by Sophie's focus on a local and rural issue. At the heart of the essay is a discussion of big questions: separation of church and state, conflicts between personal convictions and the good of the community, and the gray areas that define all politics.

Sophie has taken some risks in choosing this topic. Her declared atheism might alienate some readers. From her opening line ("I am not entirely sure") she presents herself as someone who does not have all the answers. Indeed, Sophie is not the hero of this story. She's not even convinced that she made the right decision, and her vote did not affect the outcome of the situation.

The Tone

These risks are what make the essay effective. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer at a liberal arts college. What kind of student do you want as part of your campus community? One with all the answers, who knows everything, never makes wrong decisions and seems to have nothing to learn?

Clearly not. Sophie presents herself as someone who is continually learning, rethinking her convictions and embracing her uncertainty. It's important to note that Sophie does have strong convictions, but she is open-minded enough to challenge them. The essay shows Sophie to be an engaged, thoughtful and questioning community member. She takes on challenges, sticks with her convictions, yet she does so with pleasing open-mindedness and humility. In short, she demonstrates the qualities that are a great match for a small liberal arts college.

The Writing

As you read Sophie's essay, one problem probably jumped out when you reached the second page: it's too long (Lora's essay has the same problem). The current guidelines require an essay in the 250-500 word range. When Sophie wrote the essay, the Common Application did not set an upper length limit, but 1,200 words was nevertheless too long. The length is a real problem. Admissions folks have thousands of essays to read, so a 1,200-word piece isn't going to be a welcome sight. What could Sophie have cut? Perhaps the side-story of Camp New Horizons needs to go. Perhaps a sentence could be cut here and there, especially in the first half of the essay.

I do think the opening could use a bit more work. The second sentence is a little long and clumsy, and that opening paragraph needs to really grab the reader.

That said, the writing itself is mostly excellent. The essay is largely free of grammatical or typographical errors. The prose is clear and fluid. Sophie does a nice job shifting between short, punchy sentences ("I am no Machiavelli") and longer, more complex ones. The essay, despite its length, holds the reader's attention.

Final Thoughts

I like Sophie's essay because the focus is local. Many college applicants worry that they have nothing to say, that nothing significant has happened to them. Sophie shows us that one need not have climbed Mount Everest, experienced great personal tragedy or found a cure for cancer to write an effective essay.

Sophie grapples with tough issues and shows herself to be eager to learn. She also demonstrates strong writing skills. She successfully presents herself as a good match for a competitive liberal arts college.

Find out which colleges accepted Sophie . . .

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