The University Network

Tips For College Essay Writing – Interview With Dr. Gordon Chavis From University Of Central Florida

TUN sits down with Dr. Gordon Chavis, associate vice president for enrollment services at the University of Central Florida, to discuss how students can write a college application essay that stands out among the rest.

TUN: Dr. Chavis, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. CHAVIS: You’re welcome. Glad to be here. 

To start off, let’s contextualize things. How important are essays in the admissions process? How big of a role do they play on whether or not an applicant will be admitted to an institution? 

Sure, it’s a great question. The importance of an essay is going to vary from college to college, depending on its size, the type of institution and the quality of the applicant pool, etc.

For test-optional institutions and institutions that could conduct a holistic review of the student’s application, they often put a heavy emphasis on the essay because it helps to add context and additional information about the applicant that you don’t really glean from just looking at grades or test scores. 

The best way to find out about how important an essay is to a specific institution is to inquire. University admissions representatives will tell students exactly how they value the essay and what role that essay will play in the overall admissions review. 

Can you speak to the overarching purpose of the essay in the college admissions process? What do admissions officers want to learn about applicants by having them submit essays?

The overarching purpose, I think, is to give the reader the opportunity to get to know the applicant better, beyond what the high school GPA or test scores say.

Remember, through this admissions process, (universities) are trying to build campus communities. So, the essay is one way for them to determine if an applicant is a good fit. They can understand more about the applicant’s thoughts and perspectives and how those will help shape the classroom and the classroom discussions. 

Faculty are particularly interested in learning whether students are writing well and whether they’re thinking — because they can certainly discern that from a well-written essay — and what potential ideas they will bring to the classroom discussion. 

Applicants are clearly taking the time to fill out their applications for one reason only — to be admitted to the institution they’re applying to. So, can you give the students watching this video some tips to help them draft a great college essay and gain a leg up on their competition?

I don’t know if I can, but I’ll try!

I think the first rule is to answer the question that’s asked. If an institution asks a very specific question as part of the essay requirement, they’re looking for very specific answers. So, students should follow those directions. Some students may have something else they would prefer to write about, but we always encourage them to follow the directions because that’s extremely important.  

Remember, the essay is part of the application because the university wants to get to know the student better. So, make it personal; don’t make it generic. But, follow directions. 

In fact, some essays do have a word limit, so students should pay particular attention to those directions. 

I think, in addition, the university is looking at whether or not a student can write well. So, proofread the essays. Go back and spell-check. 

And, remember that the admissions committee is made up of human beings, so don’t try to respond to what you think they want to hear.  Be authentic, and put your voice into telling the story. 

Now, the opposite side of the coin. What are some things that students should avoid when they’re writing application essays? I know I’ve read in the past that some people say that applicants shouldn’t use humor too often if that’s not really their thing. And, maybe, they shouldn’t use a thesaurus to fake a sophisticated vocabulary. So, what should students not do when writing their essays?

I would avoid doing that. Don’t look at the thesaurus. Don’t do those kinds of things. But, remember, the purpose of the essay is for the reader to get to know more about the students. So, be authentic. Be genuine. And, remember, the essay is not a tweet or a social media post. People want to get to know more about the applicant. So, the more a student can share in an authentic and genuine way, the better. 

One of the pet peeves that I always have is that if students are submitting multiple essays — you know, writing them and saving them on their computers — oftentimes, they will indicate a particular college in the body of the essay and, oops, sometimes they forget to change the name of the institution .. not a good thing to do. So, proofreading is extremely important. We want to know that you’re just as excited about being a member of our community as we are about offering you an opportunity to join us. 

To wrap things up, how can students practice essay writing? Is there a good place they can go online to view sample prompts, for example? 

That’s a great question. Students should initially go to the web page of the institutions that they are interested in applying to in order to find out what are the essay prompts that they are being asked to follow. These could be general admissions questions on an FAQ page. And, they should definitely contact the institution if they don’t find those on the website. 

Many students are using the Common App these days or the Coalition App, and they both list on their websites essay prompts for students to follow. I think generally, though, the best way to practice essay writing is to actually write and to practice their writing. 

We always encourage students to begin that process during the summer prior to their senior year, so they’re not doing it at the last minute. And so they have an opportunity to practice and revise, and reform not only their writing style but also the intent of the message they’re trying to communicate. 

That does it for us here today. Dr. Chavis, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. 

It’s my pleasure. Thank you, and good luck to all the students out there who are applying in the coming year!

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.