Submitting a Solid Application

A Reddit article by Hayden Shumsky, ‘Top 10 College Admissions Mistakes,’ ( caught my attention with mistake number 1: ‘Sending in Poor Quality Essays and Applications.’ 

Mr. Shumsky is a principal, along with his father, at the Shumsky Center for Academic and Career Performance in Houston. His father, who served on the admissions committees of Northwestern and the University of Virginia, brings substantial knowledge and experience to the center’s college admissions efforts.  

Northwestern and the University of Virginia are among the most selective colleges in the country, whose applicants are virtually all in the top 10% of their high school class, with standardized test scores among the highest percentile. Applicants with such credentials, one might assume, would produce stellar essays, resumes and applications. Yet, surprisingly, according to Mr. Shumsky, applicants to these schools submit some of the lowest quality essays, resumes and recommendations. 

Mr. Shumsky goes on to write in his Reddit piece: “Colleagues in admissions to the top competitive colleges like Emory, Vanderbilt, Bowdoin, the University of California system, and the University of Texas, Austin, also report comparable low quality of applications and essays.”

Worse still, one of Mr. Shumsky’s colleagues in the admissions office of UT Austin commented on the quality of applications and essays submitted: “nearly 90% are terrible, with another 5% in the poor range.” Consequently, as admissions become ever more competitive, good applications stand out..     

In the end, the best essays, according to Mr. Shumsky, are, “authentic, personal, detailed and engaging.” You want and the reader wants a living, breathing, sweating three-dimensional image of the applicant to jump off the page. Anything else means an essay that is mediocre or worse-fails to explain who the applicant is on any level.  The Shumsky Center has been working with students for over a quarter of a century getting them into all kinds of schools and positions of responsibility. Its advice warrants regard. 

Though, if such expertise is not enough, one might turn to the colleges for feedback. 

In a blog by Gus Lubin of Business Insider, a former admissions officer from Dartmouth College remarked: “Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays…We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness.”

Abigail Conyers, Admissions counselor at Williams College, referenced, in the 25 May 2017 US News and World Report, an applicant who had developed a love of language through his grandmother’s storytelling, wished to study languages and neuroscience to better understand her encroaching dementia. Many elements of the student’s life were sprinkled throughout the essay, yet he was able to tie them all together to create a powerful statement.

Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, cites an applicant last year who wrote about his desire to read the morning announcements at his school. The full essay can be found at the JHU website called the ‘Intercom Enthusiast.’ ( It is a heartfelt slice of life essay that reveals the essence of the applicant.  

J. T. Duck, the director of admissions at Swarthmore, described a favorite essay from last year’s batch, in which a dedicated video game player exposed his ‘vulnerabilities’ through his interactions during a multiplayer game.  

There is no formula for creating an exceptional essay and assembling an impeccable application. What matters most is engaging your reader with an authentic sense of self. Assuming that the statistical assertions made about the University of Texas, Austin applications can be extrapolated across the universe of UCLA applications, that means around 95% of the UC Personal Insight Statements, around 380,000 essays the UCLA admissions readers encountered last year were ‘terrible or poor.’

If your GPA and test scores place you on the borderline, or close, expend the required energy to reveal your authentic self on the application essays to the admissions readers. In all likelihood the effort will set your application apart.