For you high school juniors, who have decided to get a head start on writing your college admissions essay, please take a few minutes to read what I have to say on the subject. I know you think your essay on feeding the poor children in Guatemala really captures your connection to the larger world beyond your suburban oasis; but, as The Bare Naked Ladies put it so eloquently in their hit song “It’s All Been Done Before!” If we have learned one thing from this past year’s applicant pool, it is that students still don’t know how to compose a compelling essay. As for the admissions officers who labored through the sea of egocentric narratives, which masqueraded as personal statements, their assessment of the essays was made quite clear- They hated them:
This is the second year in a row college admissions officers have told me that application essays, as a group, were pretty disappointing. They use phrases like “they’re writing too safe” and “we appreciate the effort,” but what they mean is clear; they were given celery when they were looking for steak. Yes, there were exceptions — like the rep who told one of my students his essay was so wonderful, it brought him to tears — but as a rule, there’s room for improvement for next year’s class.
So for you juniors who want to serve up the “steak” next year, here are two things to consider:
Your essay does have to be controversial to be effective – Far too often it seems to me that students struggle so hard to figure out what admissions officers want to hear they forget that what really matters is that they have something worth saying. Not only is it not necessary for you to discuss drinking or drug addiction in your essays, most times it is just inappropriate. While you may think that writing about the lesson you learned from your under-age drinking arrest shows how much you have grown, that is not always the way it will translate for college readers. When it comes to writing about yourself, sometimes simple is better. You do not need a grand “cause” to show that you get it. So many students have adopted the same devices to show that they are unique that their essays have become caricatures rather than authentic representations of who they really are.
Show don’t tell- No matter how many times I give my students this bit of advice, I continue to get back the same convoluted essays. If you are determined to write about your mission trip overseas, then be sure to focus in on one particularly strong image or scene that personifies the entire experience and use that moment in time to convey your intended message. In other words, don’t tell me you built a house. Describe, instead, the first day you put hammer to nail and how each board you placed carefully side by side came to symbolize the need for order in a chaotic universe. This may seem abstract and a bit over-the-top, but it is not boring. Admissions officers are just as interested in the effect that an experience had on you as they are about the actual experience itself. Remember that colleges want to know what makes you unique. One of the best admissions essays I ever read was written by a young lady I taught years ago. This girl had suffered from a troubled childhood, but, rather than tell her reader that she had had a tough life, she chose instead to use the central symbol of a mosaic to represent her struggles. In the essay, she described how she had been shattered early in life and that she had spent the better part of her adolescence putting back the pieces together to figure out who she was. She was not a perfect candidate she admitted, but she was more beautiful and unique because of her imperfections. This kind of honest introspection is what admissions officers want to see when they read your essays; and, you do not need a tragic story to achieve this goal.