MIT’s Dean explains how to write your college essay | Interview with Stuart Schmill

We met with Stuart Schmill to discuss the importance of the college application essay, the student’s experience at college, and much more. Enjoy!

MIT’s Dean explains how to write your college essay | Interview with Stuart Schmill
"You're just simply trying to communicate something about yourself in the essay, so the writing can actually be quite simple."” – Dean Stuart Schmill

MIT Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services, Stuart Schmill, offers advice to high school students beginning the college application process. Schmill feels that college application essays act as a “conversation” between students and admissions officers, offering a chance for students to speak directly to the individuals evaluating their application. Dean Schmill emphasizes the importance of a clear rather than stylistic essay that gives admissions officers a complete picture of the student. He works to ease the nerves of students and parents overwhelmed by a seemingly daunting process. Finally, Dean Schmill reminds students that college is what they make of it, regardless of the school’s objective ranking or prestige.

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Karina’s Interview with Dean of Admissions at MIT, Stuart Schmill

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:12.9The Essays

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I am super excited because I’m here with Dean Schmill who is the Dean of Admissions at MIT. And this video is set to release on August first, which is a big day for college admissions because a lot of college applications open on that day and Common App opens on that day, so there’s a lot of burning questions with college admissions. But one that I really wanna ask is, "What is it that you’re looking for in essays?" because people have spent a lot of time building their resume, a lot of them are probably already taken SAT, so the real focus now is gonna be on essays.

Stuart Schmill: Yeah. Thanks Karina, appreciate that question. Appreciate you inviting me on. It’s nice to talk with you and actually great to see everyone out there who’s watching this. So really appreciate your attention and... So yeah, essays is... I know it’s a piece of the application that really looms large for students. I definitely get that, right. It’s really the one part of the application where you can speak directly to us, to admissions officers. So your voice, you’re getting to talk to us about yourself and what motivates you, what kind of environment you like to work in, and what you think you can bring to a community. Because what we’re doing in an admissions office we’re making decisions on who we’re admitting and everybody we admit, we’re inviting to our community.

"So my advice is simple. It's first of all, think about what you wanna tell us about yourself, about what motivates you, about what you can bring to our community. And don't think of the essay as like a writing test."” – Dean Stuart Schmill

So one of the things that you can do on your essay is to tell us, well, okay, what kind of community member are you going to be. And it’s really the one part of the application where that happens because the rest of the application, your teachers are telling us things about you, or we’re looking at your transcript or the activities that you’ve done, and in some ways, you’re speaking to us through those, through the choices you’ve made in what classes you’ve taken and what activities you do. But the essay is just much more personal, it’s not mediated through anything else other than what you write to us.

So my advice is simple. It’s first of all, think about what you wanna tell us about yourself, about what motivates you, about what you can bring to our community. And don’t think of the essay as like a writing test. Think of it as an opportunity to communicate, so clear language much better than trying to be overly stylistic. Honestly, sometimes I read essays where clearly a student is trying to win some kind of award for the most alliteration or like they’re trying to get published, as though style matters.

And the problem with that is often that can really be distracting. You’re just simply trying to communicate something about yourself in the essay. The writing can actually be quite simple, ’cause oftentimes, simple writing, it’s easier to communicate. So don’t pull out your thesaurus and try to use bigger words than you otherwise would have... Just communicate with us. And then don’t stress about it. I think... So many students... My own kids finish their essay and I think, "Oh... " Like always think, "Oh, I can make this better." Whereas, "Am I saying the right thing. Or maybe I should talk about this?" And then sometimes students start putting too many things into it, it’s trying to communicate too many things and then we don’t get anything from it. So just try to relax, simple, communicate one thing about yourself that you think you want us to know, and that’s fine.

Karina: Wow, that is such fantastic advice. And just super quickly wrapping this up, what is the brief advice that you have for people going into this?

Stuart: I think... So first of all, relax, because there are a lot of great schools out there, and college, again, is gonna be what you make of it, and you can have a great experience at a lot of places. So relax, try to get a feel for what kind of environment that you work best in and find places there. And the most important thing about a college, your college experience, is gonna be who your fellow classmates are, more so than, certainly than the prestige of the school or who the faculty are, ’cause faculty are great everywhere. And there are all kinds of programs everywhere to get involved with. You wanna find a student body that you feel like you’re gonna be comfortable with, and that’s gonna motivate you and you’re gonna thrive with your fellow classmates.

Karina: Wow, well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was such a pleasure getting to interview you, and I really hope that this interview will help a lot of people as they start out on this application process. So thank you so much.