Greetings from the Dean’s desk. With the NUS Open Day in the rear view mirror, the admissions office and I are excited to begin reading our Round 3 applications. As many of you work hard to finish your applications by April 1, I want to chime in with the ‘why’ behind Yale-NUS’ holistic admissions process and some tips for the personal essay.
Yale-NUS, like Yale and other peer institutions, evaluates applicants ‘holistically’ for a reason: test scores don’t go to college. People do. And it’s holistically capable and interesting people, not just stellar test-takers, who do the best scholarship, found and run the most interesting and impactful organizations, and make the most of the opportunities and resources available to them. Yes, academic achievement as reflected in test scores and grades will be a primary consideration in the Yale-NUS admissions process, but interviews, recommendations, essays, and extracurricular accomplishments will also be given significant weight in the process.
Our admissions officers want to get to know you through your application. Whether or not you are ultimately admitted, they want to understand just who it is they are considering. Your essay is a big part of that. The essay is only one part of the whole application, but it is the most personal part. Courses, grades, and test scores are important but lack personality. School recommendations are written by other people. The essay is all about what you choose to convey about yourself to the admissions committee.
Admissions officers hope to learn a number of things from your essay:
1) How well do you write? If the writing is articulate, you’ve probably done well in English and will be off to a good start in college. If it is problematic, how significant are the problems? Can the admissions committee overlook them? Would you need some writing help if admitted, and if so, is the College able to provide that help?
2) What do you have to say? Is the essay reflective and personal? Does it get to the heart of what you are trying to convey to us? A page packed with text doesn’t necessarily mean you have more to say than someone of fewer words. Sometimes, less is more. One student might convey why he or she loves music more convincingly in a short essay than the student who writes about it in a long but superficial piece. On the other hand, sometimes you do need more words to tell your story.
3) Does the voice in the essay sound genuine? The best college essays will have the voice of the person who wrote them – usually, a 17(ish)-year-old high school student who comes to life on paper through his or her words. An essay that has been overly edited by the adults in your life will lose that voice. Lesson: write it yourself.
Once you are ready to approach your essay, sit around and THINK for a while. What is this college’s question asking? Make sure your essay answers it, but tell your own story. If the question gives you some latitude, mull over various ideas until you hit upon one that “feels” right, or about which you’re more excited than others. If you’ve stared at your computer screen for an hour and a half and written two lines, you don’t have the right topic. Quit for today. Come back tomorrow and start again. If you have the right topic, you’ll know it because it will flow easily.
A few more thoughts on choosing a topic:
1) An interesting topic does not automatically mean an interesting essay. Similarly: an ordinary topic does not automatically mean an ordinary essay.
2) Write about something that is important to YOU (not to your brother, mother, counselor, or any other people who are giving you advice). It will be easier to write and will have a more natural voice if you care about the topic.
3) Don’t try to second-guess the admissions office. Don’t think, “what do they want to hear?” or “what would they like?”, but rather “what do I want to tell them?” What do I want them to know about me before they make their decision? What should I talk about that will give them a feeling for what makes me tick? Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat for this one.
And, finally, once you have chosen a topic, try to keep the following in mind:
1) Don’t try to cover too much. All-encompassing essays will either be too long or, if shorter, superficial. Think about the writing you have read and enjoyed: writing is usually interesting because of its detail, not its generalities.
2) Be personal. It’s your application, your experiences, and your thoughts, interests, and personality. The admissions committee is trying to get to know you through your own words. Even if the topic is an intellectual one, the school is looking for a personal response.
3) Convey your feelings. If you’re excited about something, convey that. If you feel strongly about something (positive or negative), express that. Dry essays devoid of feeling don’t tend to be very interesting.
4) Don’t try to be something you aren’t. If the humor feels self-conscious, forget it. Don’t force a “creative” essay. Write in a voice that feels natural to you.
5) Be reflective. Write in some depth. Use detail and specifics, not just general statements. Flesh out your thoughts. Ask yourself why and how as you write, not so much what, when, and where.
AND FINALLY… Once you’ve sent in your application, stop worrying about it. If you did your best, that’s all you can ask of yourself.