JB Pritzker, Governor, State of Illinois

College Admissions Essays, Interviews & Recommendations

Once college admissions officers have gone through the grades and ACT/SAT scores, they’re finally ready to determine what makes a student different from everyone else who has similar grades. This is where college essay(s),  interviews and letters of recommendation come into play.

College admissions essays and personal statements

In addition to the standard application, the colleges that a student is applying to may require an essay, a personal statement, or both.   The essay is an opportunity for the school to evaluate writing and personal communication skills.  Essay topics are typically assigned, but the student may be able to choose from several possible topics. The personal statement, is an opportunity to distinguish him/herself from other applicants by telling the college about experiences and accomplishments.

In order to write a competitive and effective essay, students should consider the tips below:

  • Obtain previous years’ applications from the colleges of choice to gain a head start. Essay questions used by colleges in the past will probably be similar to those asked on current applications. 
  • If allowed to choose the topic, students need to be sure to select something that will fully answer the question, while at the same time highlight strengths and skills.
  • When answering any question, the writer should attempt to respond in a way that will distinguish them from other potential students. Why will they be an asset to the class? What makes them unique?
  • Students need to determine what is being asked and why, making sure they fully understand the question before they begin.
  • Chances are, the question will ask for a personal experience or idea. This gives students the opportunity to brainstorm and come up with stories, memories and thoughts related to the topic, and then select the one that best defines them and will help answer the question most effectively.
  • Students should use the essay as a way to demonstrate how their work or life experiences have shaped or affected them.
  • High school counselors or advisors are the perfect people to look over an essay and provide proofreading assistance and/or suggestions for improvements.

College admissions interview

Some colleges require that students have a college-admissions interview. This interview, like the college essay, gives students the opportunity to show who they really are. It will probably last around 15 to 30 minutes and will allow the student and the college to learn more about each other.  Question topics may include personal interests and high school and outside activities.  It's a good idea for students to consider what they want to share before the interview so they're better prepared to answer questions.

Letter of recommendation

Letters of recommendation should come from adults who know the student well.  Teachers, counselors, clergy persons, high school organization advisors, coaches, work supervisors, and coordinators from out-of-school or volunteer activities are all good candidates. Some colleges require that the letter be submitted with the admissions application, and others want it to be sent in separately.  Regardless of when it's submitted, the application for enrollment won’t be considered complete until ALL required documents have been supplied.

High school counselors asked to write a letter of recommendation should be provided with all required information and forms by the student.  They should also receive a copy of the essay and a list of points to include in the letter, as well as a stamped and addressed envelope.