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US Admissions FAQs Answered by a Former Ivy League Admissions Officer | Part 3

22 MAY 2021

In Part 3 of our ‘FAQs Answered by FAOs’ series, Ben discusses the implications of changes to standardized testing beginning this year, shares essay topics students may want to avoid, and advises students on when and how to start working on their college applications.

This blog is the final part in a three-part series of Frequently Asked Admissions Questions answered by former Dartmouth College admissions officer, Ben Schwartz. In part three, Ben answers the following questions:

  1. How do you think the elimination of SAT Subject Tests and the SAT Essay will affect the way admissions committees assess applications moving forward?
  2. Are there any essay topics that are overdone or that you would caution students against?
  3. When should I get started on my college applications?

Ben studied Government and Education Policy at Dartmouth, and after completing a post-graduate fellowship in West Africa, he returned to the university to serve as Assistant Director of Admissions. Ben has also served on the Dartmouth Alumni Council and chaired the Admissions and Enrollment Committee. Additionally, Ben holds an MPA from Harvard and an MBA from MIT. Today, he runs youth leadership development through a nonprofit organization called Sage Experience.


1. How do you think the elimination of SAT Subject Tests and the SAT Essay will affect the way admissions committees assess applications moving forward?

In my time at Dartmouth we never looked at the SAT Essay — so its elimination changes nothing. This is true for many other schools that said they did not consider the essay section. We did require Subject Tests, but often they were just one more opportunity for students to confirm their academic readiness. Without subject tests (or when applying SAT optional), I would lean more heavily on the transcript and teacher recommendations to feel confident that a student is ready for the rigors of our academic program. Because selective colleges have used holistic admissions for about a century now, recent changes to testing do not alter the overall decision-making process.

2. Are there any essay topics that are overdone or that you would caution students against?

How you write your personal essay matters more than what topic you write about. I want to learn about how you think, what you value, how you act, react, and interact, as well as how you reflect and grow. When reading the personal essay, I am looking for self-aware and socially-aware students who will bring intangible qualities that enrich our community, whether creativity and a sense of humor or perseverance and concern for others.

While there are no specific topics I caution against, there are four types of approaches I suggest students avoid because they rarely offer valuable perspective.

  1. The “Grandmother essay” - When a student pays homage to an amazing individual (let’s say your grandmother) and tells me so many amazing things about that individual that make me say, “If only your grandmother was applying!” Make sure your personal essay reflects you from start to finish so I’ll learn new information about what you specifically will bring to our community.
  2. The “Broken bone essay” - When a student recalls a difficult event like breaking a leg that prevented participation in a major event, like a soccer tournament. I’ve never read a “broken bone” essay that left me thinking, this student is exceptional, no matter how much they persevered. Remember, we read applications from refugees, orphans, cancer survivors, and students facing every type of hardship. If you want to write about a challenge you faced, choose something that’s unique to your circumstances that doesn’t suggest pity. Rather, tell a story of your values and impact — not a story that could have happened to many other students.
  3. The “Travel essay” - When a student expresses a love for travel either by detailing a family vacation in Greece to learn about the Parthenon, or a review of all the postcards collected from the 20 countries visited. Some students get to travel a lot and travel can be transformative; however, your personal essay is not the time to show off your love of travel. If you took a particular journey, whether a trip around the world or a road trip with your sibling, that truly transformed your life, focus on the transformation — not the travel. 
  4. The “Volunteer essay” - When a student recalls an experience to serve a less privileged community, likely spending more money than it would have cost to pay someone from the community to do the work you did. Now is not the time to gush about your $5,000 2-week volunteer trip to rural South Africa where you realized that there are children who are poor but happy. It’s great you learned this, but I need to learn about you! I’d be interested in your reflections on what this experience says about your wealth and your happiness.
  5. The “Metaphor essay” - When a student shares a deep personal experience through a metaphor, expecting me to take the time to unpack the story in the 60 seconds I have to read your one-page essay. You might be a phenomenal writer, but I want a concrete story that shows who you are and what you could add to our community. Metaphors about your metamorphosis like a caterpillar or your uniqueness like a snowflake miss the opportunity to provide tangible details that will allow me to envision you in our classrooms, clubs, dining halls and dorms.

Help me understand who you are today as a consequence of your grandmother, your broken bone, your travels, your volunteering, or your grand metaphor. Be direct so every sentence helps me learn something special about you, and even when I read quickly, every word I land on makes me want to get to know you better.

3. When should I get started on my college applications?

No matter your age, you should work to become the best version of yourself. Develop strong learning habits; find ways to grow your intellectual curiosity; enhance your leadership skills so you can make a difference in your community. Practice listening, patience, and self-reflection. No matter your grade or age, you can continue to improve yourself, but make sure you’re doing things you enjoy. Do not fill your schedule to look good — fill your life with things that you value. When it comes time to apply, your application will easily showcase a passionate individual ready to make the most of our college.  


NEXT WEEK: Read the first installation of our UK-focused ‘FAQs Answered by FAOs’ series, featuring former Oxford Admissions Officer Hannah Rowberry! Hannah will share what it was like to work in the admissions office of one of the UK’s best universities and describe how academic performance and test scores affect student outcomes, what admissions officers look for beyond academics, and common mistakes often made by qualified applicants.

At Crimson, we’re proud to have helped nearly 3,000 students around the world gain admission to top US and UK universities in the Ivy League and beyond. From essay review to online tutoring to extracurricular & career mentoring and more, our students are up to 4x more likely to gain admission to a top university than those who go it alone.

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