College Application Essays

Posted on December 16th, 2017 to Essay

So this isn’t a new topic. Much has been written about the dreaded short and long essays required as part of the admission application.  I don’t propose a new approach here, only some reflective thoughts that I hope are insightful. As I have been working with my students this year, I have been reminded of the two fundamental truths about the college essays. I have also been reminded about the important role this part of the application plays in a student’s application. This is what can help to separate a student’s application from the rest of the pack.

First, these are not 5 paragraph persuasive essays. This is the cornerstone of writing curriculum in the U.S., thus it is the style students have been well-trained in. Unfortunately, it is ill preparation to write a response to the essay prompts. Thinking about this point brings into focus why this is such a difficult tasks for students. It almost as if someone flips a light switch, asking students to turn off everything they know and write in a way that they have little to no experience in.

Second, these essays are creative and reflective pieces. There is no doubt about it, this kind of writing is hard for high school students–except those who have a natural writing talent or have spent a lot of time writing in a journal. The challenge I generally see students facing is that they are asked to dig into the depths of themselves, bring their self out into the light, and let complete strangers see it. That is scary for anyone.

Logically the next question to consider is: how should students deal with those two realities? As I stated at the beginning this isn’t a new topic, so there is a ton out there about strategies, worksheets, and so on.  That said, the way for students to navigate the essay writing process successfully is: pre-writing, draft writing, editing. Again, this isn’t ground breaking stuff; however it is extremely important to emphasize. Pre-writing can come in different forms, but the end goal is to get thoughts on the page. The critically most important part of this step is that everything written must help to answer the prompt. Failure to answer the prompt is by far the most frequent mistake and the biggest cardinal sin. Pre-writing should also be an opportunity for the student to explore him/her self–figure out what pieces of his/her identity are important for the college/university to know. Stated another way, what won’t admission officers learn about the applicant from the transcript, letters of recommendation, test scores, and extracurricular resume.

Once the ideas are down on paper, it is time to organize them into a cohesive story. This is the draft writing phase. Again, there are lots of ways to go about this process–my favorite is to use bullet points, because I like to move things around. The driving thought here is: how can the student answer the essay prompt by telling a story about him/her self? This takes time and care. I often encourage students to look back upon their favorite authors for examples of how to tell a good story.

The final phase is editing. This is an opportunity for the student to get advice on how to hone their story. This could mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, asking more questions that could help tease the writing out, considering word choices, fixing/adjusting grammar, and/or making the story flow smoothly. There is such a thing as “too many cooks in the kitchen”. I think asking a diverse array of people for feedback is good. Asking them all at the same time is counter productive. So after a student has picked who they want to get feedback from, I often ask them to come up with a strategic plan of who they will ask first, second, third, etc.

Here are some suggestions I have offered students to help them in any of these stages:

  1. Forget about word count and just write: sometimes focusing on all the restrictions restricts the writing. So either in the pre-writing or drafting phase, just write. Then go back through and pick out the “good stuff”.
  2. Pick out the important pieces of the prompt: this is helpful in properly framing the question, and ultimately ensuring students answer the prompt. I usually suggest they take those terms or phrases, turn them into headings in an outline, then make bulleted lists (words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or some combination thereof) under each heading that addresses the prompt.
  3. Move the last sentence first: this is a trend I see a lot when reviewing essays. Often by the end of the draft the student has really found a rhythm to his/her writing, and then decides to stop because of the word count (see bullet point 1). So many times the good stuff is towards the end, including a killer opening sentence.
  4. Make the school feel special: this really only applies to those prompts that ask “why do you want to come to <insert school name here>?” This is an opportunity for the student to show off how much research s/he has done, so s/he should take advantage. Avoid hyper-generalized statements like “<school name> has a great biology program”; instead write, “I welcome the opportunity to study with Professor  Smith, because she is focused in my primary area of biology.”
  5. “Hurry up and get to the point”: at the end of the day these essay responses have a word or character limit, so there generally isn’t a lot of essay real estate available for a lot of fluff, description, or generalizations. Finding ways to trim that back, will help students get to the point faster–thus leaving more space in the essay for other things.
  6. “Use 3 words instead of 5”: This is a great way to help with the word count. I guide students to combine three sentences into one or take a particularly verbose sentence and simplify it. Again this advice should be focused on the components of the essay that are needed to provide context, but aren’t overly critical to the overarching message/theme/point.

Without a doubt the essays are a challenging component of the application. It is the opportunity for a student to express him or her-self and tell the admission officers something new about who s/he is. Many students have great grades, challenging classes, and solid test scores–no student’s lived experience is exactly the same. Each of us experiences the world in a slightly different way, and this is an opportunity for a student to share that with admission officers.

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