• Dr. Thom

The Most Unexpected X Factor in the Best College Admissions Essays

It is true: admissions officers read a lot of essays. A lot. In a given admissions cycle the essay count can easily be in the thousands.


Given this, let’s start to crack the code on what makes a remarkable admissions essay stand out among the thousands. The X factor in all of the best college application essays is at once incredibly simple, and increasingly rare. While the phrase is admittedly a bit egghead-ish, what it represents is actually quite simple and powerful:


Palpable emotional significance

Did you know that when people read a line of text, their eyes bounce across the page landing on every 7-9 letters? These bounces, called saccades are interspersed with times when our eyes settle on a word, called a fixation. In a way, the act of reading is a constant process of recognition and anticipation, as your brain asks and answers the questions, “what am I seeing?” and “what is coming next?” within milliseconds. It is the way our brain attempts to be judicious with our mental energy.


That's why we speed up when we come along a passage of text with an anticipatory cadence and word choice (think cliches like, "all is fair in love and war" or "every cloud has a silver lining").

So what makes us slow down when we read? The short answer is, anything we are not anticipating. If it is something novel, or unanticipated, we slow and often have to back up and re-read passages.


This truth however, leads people to shortcut thinking as they attempt to write an essay in such a unique way as to throw off the reader. This leads people to mess with their admissions essays in some odd way, like a 1st person dialogue between the student and the ghost of Robert Frost [seriously, I read one of these once], or they go for shock value, such as leading off their essay with cursing. Obviously, we’re aiming for a more lasting value in our essays. How? By making an emotional connection with the reader.

By “emotional” I mean simply something that pertains to a genuine human emotion. The college essays that I still recall to this day were well-told stories that connected with me on a real human level. They centered on a memorable and meaningful personal sentiment with which I could relate.

Palpable: becomes real to the senses, and thus puts me as the reader in the experience

Emotional: connects to any one of the full-range of human emotions, for example, consider one of the many attempts to index the many distinct human emotions

Significance: the audience is provided with enough detail and insight into the experience to truly care about it

Take time before sitting down and staring at that blinking cursor of your essay and think on, and better yet free-write about what is the palpable emotional significance that sits at the core of the essay you want to write.


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