A Note of introduction from AdmissionsDaniel: Here is the second entry in our series of guest entries providing advice on various sections of the application. Today's author is Associate Director of Admissions Amy Brokl, one of our best authorities on the application process since she was admitted to Hopkins and attended. All the counseling staff members have become experts on evaluating application essays, but Amy is the best at expressing advice on how to tackle the task. Enjoy, and thanks Amy.
“Writing is a struggle against silence.”
– Carlos Fuentes
Though much emphasis is placed on the notion of “standing out” in the highly selective application process, this is a difficult (some might even suggest nearly impossible) feat to achieve. With 16,000+ applications in last year’s applicant pool alone here at Johns Hopkins, most having been submitted by high school students in their senior year, the opportunity for a great deal of variation in these pieces of writing is slim. When students ask how to stand out, I do what I can to encourage a reexamination of that thought process. Rather than focusing one’s energies on being entirely “unique” or “different,” I urge these students to concentrate on being themselves. After all, one cannot be all things to all colleges; all one can be is oneself, and all one can do is present that self in its best possible light.
One of the best tools available to students seeking to make themselves known in this process is the essay. Though some schools may ask for a more lengthy response to a single prompt, others might toss out a series of questions that require so-called “short answers.” At Hopkins, we ask for completion of two essays (one from either the Common Application or Universal College Application, and one that responds to the prompt provided on our supplement). Regardless of how these questions are configured, the opportunity to share aspects of oneself with the admission committee should neither be overlooked nor squandered. After all, much of what the student portion of the application amounts to is record-keeping. From address blocks and family information to one’s list of extracurricular activities, there is little room to infuse character or personality. Moreover, this information (though necessary) is immutable! The essay allows you to share yourself, your worldview, and your voice as it currently exists in the immediate present. For admissions counselors, this is invaluable information – and thus for you, the essay becomes a tremendous opportunity.
This summer, I had the chance to participate in a summer admission panel for high school students in my travel territory. Among other things, we discussed the essay. While some colleges and universities view the essay as more of a “writing sample,” here at Johns Hopkins, our essays serve both as writing samples and as revelatory documents. Though we are certainly concerned with your mechanics, spelling, and your use of Johns Hopkins (note the emphasis on that “s”), the content is in fact, the most critical component.
This panel also addressed the question of topics. Though some prompts force one into a literary corner, others are much more flexible. Almost anything can be the subject of a substantive, interesting essay – think wisely and deeply and good thoughts will follow. Most importantly, though, do know that there are very few topics that are poor choices (at least, in my book). Many students worry about how oft used their topic of choice might be; in response, I might observe that there are only so many experiences that one can reasonably have and about which one can comfortably write. Students – don’t be afraid to tackle a difficult topic – but always be sure to bring it back to you!
Admissions counselors are famous for their various pet peeves – many of which are tied to essays. I’ve heard colleagues quibble about those that extol the virtues of family and friends (are we reviewing the application of the writer of that essay, or that writer’s grandmother/brother/uncle?) I’ve heard similar conversations about current events or polarizing issues. Do not forget to bring these sorts of topics back around to you, to the way you think, to the way you feel, and to the way in which you see the world. We hope to access you, inasmuch as that is possible – I become most frustrated in this process when that access is deferred or denied due to an impersonal collection of words on a page.
Finally – don’t forget to have a bit of fun! Certainly, this can be a serious and often stressful process; I understand how high the stakes might feel. That said, personality and character are important. If we have difficulty drawing this from your essay, there are few opportunities wherein one can introduce these critical elements. Enjoy this process – or at least, treat it with some diligence. Your application will be richer for it!
Editor's Note: For additional information on the essays in the Johns Hopkins admissions process and an opportunity for you to ask your own questions check out the Application Essay and the 2009-10 Application Essay Policy Explained discussion threads on our Hopkins Forums.
Additionally, we encourage you to check out our new Admissions Web page: ESSAYS THAT WORKED. The Admissions Committee selected four examples of essays that worked, written by members of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2013. These essays represent just four examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle. These "essays that worked" are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and activity sheets. They were creative, original, and showcased each applicant's personal voice. We hope you find them helpful.