The changing rules of college admissions

Behind the scenes with alumna Corinne Smith

Corinne Smith was blunt when she met with college admissions officers during high school. “I vividly remember them asking if I knew what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I’d say, ‘I want your job.’”

Now associate director of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, Smith (WCAS13, MS16) oversees rural outreach and recruitment, coordinates domestic travel and virtual events, and manages up to 2,500 undergraduate applications across seven states.

At the same time, she is pursuing her doctorate in diversity and equity in education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, focusing on rural students and barriers to college access.

Smith recently chatted with us about her book The College Essay Journal: A Mindful Manual for College Applications, written with Ann Merrell (MS16), as well as SESP’s Master’s in Higher Education Administration and Policy (MSHE) program and how advancements in artificial intelligence will affect college essays. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your own college essay topic?

My name. It was not a good essay. I’ve applied to school three times since then—I transferred and then applied to master’s and doctoral programs—and it gets better every time. But it’s not easy. I’d much rather read other people’s essays than write my own.

How many essays do you read each year?

Somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 files. Each file has multiple essays, and I’ll read them more than once. That’s for my territory, but I also vote in Yale’s admissions committees, where you’ll see 60 to 70 applications per day. 

Why did you incorporate mindfulness and brainstorming techniques into your book The College Essay Journal?

Applying to college should be exciting, right? You’re embarking on the next phase of your life and writing about yourself in a reflective way. [Coauthor] Ann Merrell and I were both seeing that it was unnecessarily stressful and causing anxiety. We wanted it to be a fun, really reflective, and positive experience. This is the book I wish I’d had when I was 17.

How can you tell when an adult has helped write the essay?

Parents tend to insert themselves into the story. It’s a good thing to have people edit the essay, but too much editing means the writing gets overly crafted. 

What kind of topic should students avoid?

The “shock value” essay. I had one that started with “my best friend and I injure each other about once per week,” which didn’t sound healthy or like a good friendship. Two paragraphs later I learned they are circus performers who practice dangerous stunts at their weekly class. It could have been interesting but instead became a hurdle to overcome because the beginning was confusing.

Since a Supreme Court decision last year made it unlawful for colleges to consider race as a specific factor in admissions, can applicants write about race or ethnicity?

Essay topics are a very personal choice and should depend on what the student feels comfortable sharing. If a student does choose to write about their race or ethnicity, I’d encourage them to do so within the context of a larger story or essay topic. We don’t want students to feel like they’re being required to traumadump or relive difficult experiences in their essays.

For example?

For years we’ve read essays in which students describe cooking food with their grandmothers in a way that represents their heritage. Their background comes up, but it’s not the sole focus of the piece. This allows us to learn more about who they are, what they value, and how they express themselves. My advice is to write about race or ethnicity in the context of something else that you care about.

Is it wrong to use artificial intelligence like ChatGPT on admissions applications?

Students need to be exceptionally careful because they will probably have to attest to not using any artificial intelligence help. Admitted students who get caught are putting their place in the class in jeopardy.

Are there other downsides to AI?

The most authentic essays and student voices won’t be captured, and that’s what we’re looking for. These platforms might be able to write an essay, but those pieces rarely have the emotion, vulnerability, or depth that admissions officers like to see.

How can AI be used effectively?

Ask it for an outline to help you brainstorm where you’re going. I was writing an essay on intersectionality and wanted to see if ChatGPT came up with the same key points that I had. This prompt worked pretty well, and I could see how a student might take the outline and build from it. But it’s important to be careful. ChatGPT lies! When I asked it for references on intersectionality, some were real but many were completely made up.

You nearly went to another school for your master’s degree instead of Northwestern. What changed your mind?

[MSHE program director] Lois Trautvetter called to say I’d received an offer to do my internship in Northwestern’s athletic department. I asked the other school I was considering if they could do anything similar, and they said, “That’s a great offer. You should take it.”

What were classes like?

We were learning from leading people in the profession. The vice president of enrollment management at Northwestern taught our class on the topic. Gene Lowe, the University president’s adviser at the time, taught two of my classes. These were leaders of the institution taking their time to teach us.

Was it hard to work during the day and take classes at night?

It was busy but fun. I built a social life and a network at Northwestern in athletics and admissions. I had great people not only to give me references but who could connect me with others in the higher ed space. I now know people all over the country.

How did your interview at Yale go?

The first thing the dean of admissions said to me was “My Northwestern diploma is right over there.” He had hisMBA from the Kellogg School of Management and said, “If you come work here, you can still bleed purple. You can still root for the Wildcats, and I’ll cheer them on with you.”