FSU’s Admissions Director explains the college essay

If your student is a rising high school senior, now is the perfect time to start working on that college essay. Many students find the essay challenging because it’s not the academic exercise they’re accustomed to. To do it well, they must discover an authentic, personal voice—and that can feel quite vulnerable.

Hege Ferguson, Director of Admissions of Florida State University, says she never loses sight of that.

“Behind every application, there is a young person who put their time and effort into sharing a part of themselves,” she said. “We have a responsibility to treat each one of their applications with much respect and humility and recognition that that is not an easy thing to do.”

Ferguson was happy to share her insider’s perspective on the importance of the college essay. In truth, while the application is looked at holistically, other factors are weighed first.

“The most important thing is the academic performance of the student from 9th through 11th grade: the courses they took, the rigor, the grades they earned; the AP, honors, dual enrollment classes,” she said, adding that admissions officers will check that the rigor continues with senior year classes. “What subjects did the student immerse themselves into?”

Admissions officers also look at test scores (the ACT or SAT) and extracurriculars throughout high school, as well as employment (including its duration), internships, summer jobs and responsibilities at home.

“The value of the essay will depend on all of these other factors,” she said. “So if you have an outstanding student with high grades, rigorous curriculum, leadership, etc., there’s not a lot of emphasis on the essay because they have a lot of those factors that are indicators of good success in college.”

The essay does not matter much for the top 25 percent of applicants or the bottom 25 percent, she said. That middle 50 percent is where the essay ends up having the most weight.

“The essay is an opportunity to learn about the student beyond what we can already see on the transcript and test scores and extracurriculars. It lets them lend their voice to who they are,” she said, adding that sometimes a parent or student who is not accepted will call her office to ask why. “They will say, ‘But you don’t know me.’ And I say, ‘What did you share about yourself? Did you share what you wanted us to know about you?’ ”

Ferguson painted a picture of how a student could maximize their essay’s impact. A student whose transition to high school is rough—with a 9th grade GPA reflecting that—could use the essay to talk about that difficult transition and how they overcame it.

Want more advice about the essay? Lance Bergman, a college resource adviser at Pine View School in Sarasota, shares his tips here. Good luck!

“Last year, a young man was on the bubble, with a few wobbles with his academic grades, so I dove into his essay,” she said. “And I learned that he was homeless. He was living out of his car and sleeping on friends’ couches. He had a really traumatic home situation. For him to, one, share that, took a lot of courage. But it also put a lot of perspective on what I was seeing. And then you look at his curriculum and you marvel with what he was able to accomplish.”

Ferguson also shared some basic pointers.

  • Yes, good grammar and punctuation matter, because students will do a lot of writing in college and she needs to believe they will be up for that rigor.
  • Start the application process early, and follow all directions closely.
  • Because email is the primary method of communication, consider getting an email address just for college applications, and be meticulously organized about each college’s requirements and deadlines.
  • Finally, if you’re applying to multiple colleges (and you probably are), be sure to swap out names for the proper institution.

“That sounds so simple, but every year I get essays that have that another school’s name in there,” she said. “What it says to me is that you didn’t take the time to look over the information before you hit that send button, so maybe I’m feeling like I’m not as high on your list as I would like to be.”

Contrary to what many think, Ferguson said her focus is on trying to admit students. She also wants to admit a student body that reflects the state and its diversity. Last year, she received close to 64,000 applications for an admission class of about 6,000.

“I have the opportunity every year to read applications from these fantastic students who are just resilient, forward thinking, innovative – they’re just a really cool group of people,” she said.

“I get to see the world through their eyes and feel blessed to be part of their journey.”

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