Johns Hopkins University Assistant Director of Admissions Calvin Wise isn’t fazed when he sees impressive grades and test scores on applications for admission. But his adrenaline gets pumping when he reads a great essay.
“I never run into a colleague’s office and say ‘look at this 4.0 GPA,’ ” Wise told Wow’s Kim Lifton during a phone interview. ”I will run into an office with a good essay to share; that excites me.”
This time of year, we hear countless myths about college admissions. Lifton contacted Wise last week to set the record straight. His responses to our questions should help clarify a few things.
What are you looking for in an essay?
We are looking for your story. We want to know what makes you different, unique. We want to know who you are. Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. What did an experience mean to you? How did it shape you?”
What makes an application essay stand out for you?
“Essays that really show an applicant’s character and personality stand out the most to me. The goal is to read the application and feel like I know the student without having met them. The essay is the only place a student has an opportunity to talk to a college. Teens look forward and into the future, and they don’t spend much time looking backward. Having that type of reflection means the most to us in the admissions office.”
What if a student doesn’t have an aha moment? Does it matter?
“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event. You can write about an aha moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small.”
Are there taboo subjects? Is it okay to write about sports?
“You can write about sports, but we want you to draw life lessons out of that sport. Don’t be so cliche and write something that states ‘I learned how to work as a team.’ What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know.”
What should a student do if he/she loves an essay topic and someone says it is a bad subject?
“Stop talking to people who are not reading the essays, and call the admissions office and ask.”
How do you select a freshmen class?
“It is a holistic process. The essay is an important part of the application. We pace through the whole application, and we read every letter, essay, resume. People have this preconceived notion that we are mean people who like to deny students admission. We are not. We are looking to create a class. We are trying to admit students, and we only have a 17 percent admission rate. There is no checklist; it is not that cut and dry. The bottom line is that we are looking at your whole package – it is not just about grades and test (SAT/ACT) scores.”
How important are test scores? Grades?
“Tests (SAT/ACT) count for more than students want them to count for but for less than they think they count for. No one score will get you admitted, and no one score will get you denied. We look at the test, and we look at it in context. What is more important is what a student does on a day-to-day basis.”
Kim Lifton is a partner at Wow Writing Workshop. Are you trying to get your essays done before Labor Day? Contact us, and we’ll fit you in. Brainstorming appointments and essay-review appointments available.