Don’t write about this in your admissions essays

2010-05-12 in College Admissions

Every fall I read a few hundred admissions essays, most of which are intended for the admissions officers of the embattled University of California. And every year I think to myself, I wish this person had attended our college admissions workshop. For TestMagic students, it’s a free seminar and most of the time is open to the public as well.

People often ask me what we cover in the workshop, and I often tell people it’s just mostly common-sense advice. For example, plan ahead, choose your schools carefully, spend time on your essays, etc. To me, perhaps because I’ve been doing this for so long, this all seems fairly self-evident, not just for admissions season, and not just for all things academic, but for life as well: Think ahead. Be earnest. Be intelligent. Put your heart into it.

I’ve compiled a good list of dos and don’ts of applying to college, many or most or all of which I will try to share here.

Here’s one of them:

Tip #217: Don’t talk about SAT prep

How would you feel if you were reading the essay of a college applicant, and you read something like this on his essay?

Every day I come home after school, and my parents are not there. Life is hard for me. I have to cook for myself, and my parents need help around the house since they work so much. I can’t study until late at night, but learning is extremely important to me. There’s nothing I love more than learning new things. I work hard at everything I do. When I first took the SAT, it was hard. I didn’t know any of the words or the grammar, and I bombed the essay. My math was really bad. To raise my score, I took five SAT prep classes during the summers and during the school year. Because of my hard work, my SAT score went up more than 600 points.

(N.B. Just for the record, that is NOT taken from a student’s essay; I just wrote that myself based on what I’ve read in other people’s essays in past application seasons.)

Now I know what this writer was thinking. He was thinking, Hey, taking SAT-prep classes in the summer isn’t exactly how I’d choose to spend my summer if I had my druthers. So of course taking SAT classes will impress the people reading my essay. And if I took the class five times, then that will impress them even more. Well, I know I took the class only once, but how can they check?

It’s great that this hypothetical person wanted to raise his SAT score and was willing to put in the work to do so. But others might see things differently; others might not think, Wow, what a hard worker! He took SAT prep classes to raise his SAT score! We want him at our school! No, other people might have different thoughts. They might think, Wow, why’d he have to take the class five times? Wasn’t once enough? Or they might think that the applicant is somehow privileged (although many SAT-prep classes are quite affordable; some are even free). Finally, they might simply penalize the applicant thinking that his highest SAT score is not representative of his actual ability. In other words, the admissions officer might consider the applicant’s SAT score an inflated score.

In recent years, high schools and universities have come to accept the fact that people will take SAT-prep classes. Many high schools even offer them at their schools with the hope that their students have a slight edge over other students with higher SAT scores, which in turn will raise the ranking of their high school. In many ways, college admissions is very much a numbers game, and everybody’s playing.

6 responses to Don’t write about this in your admissions essays

  1. hi dear, I have read your….. what can we call it okay a fragment of your essay so
    It was nice to read and get something new.I have problem with essay writing.My problem is I do not know how should I start I mean about introduction
    so give me some tips and write me soon
    best wishes
    Sayed Ahad
  2. sara said on 2010-08-06

    Does that means it is better not to talk about TOEFL pre and GRE prep neither?
  3. Diksha said on 2013-05-21


    I get the idea that you should not talk about the preparation for the exams like TOEFL or GRE. I am applying to a graduate school and have no research experience. I have a work experience of 8 years however. What should I write about? I want to enter into research.

    • Well, the obvious answer is that you should answer the question asked, which typically relates to your experience, your interest in the field, your plans for the future, and the like. What sort of higher education are you thinking of pursuing?
  4. Denny said on 2013-09-16

    Hi Erin, it’s good to actually talk to a recruiter like you. I need a bit of your advice here. I wish to see what’s my chance of being accepted in a Ph.D program. Below is a bit of my info

    I’m currently an International student in Penn State U, pursuing Master of Finance degree. I wish to pursue Ph.D in finance after I graduate this fall semester. I’m really interested in research and becoming a professor, since it will give me a life I want: doing research to expand knowledge, and teaching to spread them. My undergrad is Business Administration with a focus of HR management, with a GPA of 3.6/4.0; My current GPA is 3.97/4.0. My GMAT is 730/800; TOEFL is 103 but it’s three years old and expired, and I will retake it within a month. I’ve also passed two levels of CFA, the most recognized credential in finance professional, and will take the last level next year. I’d love to choose behavioral finance as my focus, since I have both a background of human behavior study and traditional finance. I was the third author in one of my publication in undergrad, and I’m doing some research assistant job for one of my professor now. My father, who’s a professor in medical school himself, fully supported my idea of pursuing a Ph.D. But I need to get a grid of it. What’s my chance of being accepted? Since I’ve only been a student my entire life (turning 24 next month), should I work for a few years and then apply so it may increase my chance?

    I appreciated your time to read my message!

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