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Nov. 1, 2010

College Application Essays Must Come From the Heart

Essay topics to “be careful of,” according to a Smith College admission official: winning or losing the big game, the death of a pet, relationship problems and parent-bashing.

1NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – With the application deadline for early decision just weeks away, college and university admission officers are well aware of the pressure high school students are under – including identifying the subject for their personal essay.

Smith College and more than 400 other institutions nationwide now use the standard “Common Application,” which offers a few ideas for essays but adds that students can write about any subject as long as they do so in 250 words or more.

“Students think there is a ‘right’ topic – if I could just crack the code – but the best one is the topic that comes from that individual,” said Karen Kristof, Smith College senior associate director of admission, who has read applications for more than two decades. “It has got to come from the heart.”

The purpose of the essay, said Kristof, is to help admission officers learn more about the student as a person. The other information – courses taken; extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities; teacher evaluations – is all documented elsewhere in the application.

There are trends among essay topics – the person most admired by the applicant, travel experiences or a current event. Volunteer work in a Third World nation has been recently popular, said Kristof, adding, “we understand that you are only 18 and we are not expecting that you changed the world.”

On her list of topics to “be careful of:” winning or losing the big game, the death of a pet, relationship problems and parent-bashing.

However, regardless of the topic, a good essay is a good essay.

Admission officers evaluate an essay on three levels, according to Kristof. Is the writing grammatically correct and the writing style comfortable? Can the applicant form a thesis and develop a logical argument? And, can the applicant write with style, nuance and creativity – with a distinctive voice?

The last point – the distinctive voice – is why Kristof cautions applicants not to “borrow” essays from the Web. “We’ve seen them all.”

Graduates Remember The Essays That Got Them In

Given the amount of attention paid to the essay, some applicants can recall what they wrote about long after they’ve been accepted, matriculated and graduated. Smith College alumnae shared their topics recently on the college’s Facebook page. A sampling of their responses:

Rebecca Levine: “Rewiring my dad’s Mack truck.”

Kim Ratliff Hall: “Exxon Valdez oil spill and preventive technologies to avoid a similar disaster in the future.”

Emily Jones: “I wrote about how Lucy Ricardo was one person who had influenced me. It was pretty witty.”

Kim Kie: “The journey not the arrival matters. I've since learned how absolutely true that is!”

Erinn McGurn: “Propaganda. Love to dig that out of the archives!”

Christine D. Boyle: “I wrote about my godmother, who was one of New York City’s first female firefighters and will always be in inspiration to me.”

Erin Northey: “The person who influences me and I admire most, my dad – how he taught me to understand and appreciate the value of education.”

Elizabeth Cleary: “In 1978, one was one an Emily Dickinson quote. The other was to write your own obituary. I never felt it was morbid. Just a great opportunity.”

Susan Cole: “Wrote my own obituary mentioning the high-powered corporate position I had held – was I ever wrong – ended up a high school math theater and I am glad that I was so wrong.”

Abby Berns: “I wrote about my love of bacteria. I even began it “I love bacteria.” Now I work in public health.”

Jennifer Ann Pierce Frederick: “About the HUGE daddy-long-legs in the girls’ bathroom at camp. I don’t remember where I took it from there, though…”

Susan Schmitt-Fox: “I wrote about how Donna Harraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ mirrored by own life.”

Erin O’Connor: “Writers must write what they believe. If they don’t, they cease to be writers and become propagandists… (I haven’t thought of that in almost 20 years.)”

Lanore C. Smith: “I couldn’t ever forget – my mom! My mother is the true inspiration in my life and always has been.”

Jennifer Dryfoos: “I do and that was a LONG time ago.”


Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
Media Relations Director
T (413) 585-2190
F (413) 585-2174

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