College Essay Mechanics
Since it is College Application and Decision season, I want to share some thoughts as I have been working with many on their application process, essay reviews, and SAT preparation. I see these challenges yearly. I appreciate the levels of stress and anxiety both students and parents have during this time. It is hugely time consuming and fraught with misinformation and misguidance!
Everyone who is applying to any school either Early Action or Early Decision really needs to have his or her essay complete this week. Completion includes a review by a trusted person (not necessarily an English expert!) and your counselor’s input. Please have all the comments and thoughts given incorporated, and one final review done this week.
*What is NOT great: I am not a huge fan of having an English teacher review and rewrite!
Often I find English teachers craft the essay into a creative work of fiction. This is not what is needed for a College Essay. College Essays are meant to be thoughtful revelations by a student. Any essay that reads like a story, a movie script, or a tale from days of yore is poor.
**In a similar vein, well-meaning, loving parents often want to embellish an essay to the point of morphing it into a 45 year old’s memoir! Please parents resist the temptation to rewrite your child’s essay into a well-crafted remembrance, a bullet-pointed resume, a recap of strengths and weaknesses, a diary of every achievement since the age of two, etc. This is your child’s essay. Think of it this way, although you love your child and understand him or her like no other, this is his or her OWN personal reflection, not yours! Think how an Admission Committee sees your student’s entire profile: a transcript, recommendations, scores, some references, and then a few essays. If one of these things is NOT like the others, it is completely obvious.
Anecdotally, years ago I had a lovely young man, who enjoyed a meal for sure, and he wrote a personal statement in his own voice of what it felt like to be challenged in a sport. All is good so far, because he was being recruited for the sport. (See below about debunking the Taboo about writing about your sport) He had to write two supplemental essays for the school recruiting him. One was: what in particular he would like to study and what career he might envision himself pursuing, and why. The other was: if he were to invent a device that changed the course of mankind, what would he invent and why?
So he wrote about what he wanted to study at the college and why he felt it would help him in the career he envisioned himself. He wanted to study marketing and communications; he dreamed of working in sports promotions and media for the sport he loved. So far, all that he had contributed was good. Why? It seems consistent with the student who the coach and admission had met a few times.
Then the second essay was crafted by his loving father. It was so completely off the wall, in terms of his son! Dad had suffered a major heart problem and was forced to change his diet and lifestyle to recover his health. He had embraced with vigilance a vegan diet. His son had clearly not. The other essay was about a device to be implanted in a person that measured calories and fat and had an alarm go off if the individual ate too much fat! Further, the essay included some serious references to how many men suffered from heart attacks per minute, per week, per year in America. The wording and tone were nothing like the other essays. And since the student had met with both Admissions and the Coaches many times over the summer, the very idea that he would even think of such a device was comical.
I gently dissuaded the submission of this alarmingly different piece and brainstormed an invention more in keeping with the son’s thoughts and ideas.
My advice to parents-it is okay to have someone read the essays for grammar and coherence. If you want to do it yourself, fine, but please do not create works of your desire and taste. Let your student have a voice. Admissions staff knows when people other than students write essays.
Your essay, as I am sure many of you have read MUST contain: A HOOK! It HAS to be funny. It HAS to be dramatic. It HAS to stop traffic. NO, NO, NO!!!! How many books, articles, and lectures did you go to telling you the same thing over and over again? Well, it is simply not true.
Your essay should begin with something that genuinely captures the reader, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic or humorous. People who write what everyone else does as a format and who read the essay advice books, columns and so forth rigorously, become commonplace and unoriginal. Admission readers, some now, can even tell which essay advice book the student took to heart when crafting his or her essay. That is how banal the field of College Essay Writing and Tips has become. So if you think that precious HOOK has made you stand out, you might be dead wrong and that HOOK may have actually made your essay a cliché! Be original (and genuine) is the message. This is about what you want to share about YOURSELF, not what some How-To Book tells you will sell.
So how do you start? Well, consider the question you are answering carefully. If that question was asked to you verbally, how would you respond? Think of your response as the starting point to your outline. Then I prefer students outline paragraph by paragraph how to weave in the content, and include strengths, weaknesses, learnings, and achievements, throughout the evolution of the narrative. You do not need to go in chronological order, but there must be a logical, cohesive flow to how you present your ideas and revelations.
You should include a personal anecdote or two; these need not be humorous or dramatic, but they should very much be genuine and in your OWN voice!! They must also be appropriate for what you are sharing. Please do not write an extended metaphor that ends up making the essay trivial or trite. Also, please do not include more than two personal anecdotes. Some parents want to put everything into the essay. Remember there are optional essays that might be suitable for one of those gems that truly detracts from your main essay. So in the case of personal anecdotes, less is more. I caution anyone who wants to use ESSAY WRITING companies…I am 100% against such organizations. I have read numerous crafted essays that sound nothing like the student I have come to know. Some even have a standard portfolio of essays that are really just an exercise of fill in the blanks. These are personal and not reflective of you; save your money and write your own. Get some suggestions about how to do it, but write the essay yourself!
A real, thoughtful work revealing most importantly, your character, is what works the best. And that need not be some specific event or identifiers, it can be about a particular character trait you have come to be identified with such as: perseverance, courage, compassion, or commitment. Or it could be about a talent you might excel in…. when students are stuck, I offer them to consider a few things:
- What makes you uncomfortable? What makes you feel strongly? Often strong feelings reveal something about your soul and character.
- When were your embarrassed? What made you blush? This often reveals a vulnerability that can lead to a character identifier you are not aware of.
- What frustrates you most about yourself? Is there a story behind how you overcame your frustration? Or is there a story when you fell flat, and had to pick yourself up?
- If you were to ask your friends what three adjectives do they define you by….sometimes your friends can reveal something you, yourself, never see (I had a lovely young woman, who has since graduated from college, ask her friends…all said she was the most optimistic person they met, and many said that they counted on her for support. She wrote about how she was able to make lemonade from lemons her whole life.)
- Is there something that happened in your life that changed the course of how you live?
Once you winnow down to what you want to say, then craft an outline to ensure that you put some logic to what you want say in addition. How have you evolved? How will you contribute in college? How will you continue to grow in college, and how will that trait or experience you have identified continue to support you as you move on in life?
When you start writing, the best advice I can give anyone is to treat the computer as your friend, and talk to it. Speak what you want to say to the computer. Initially you might write a thousand words or more. It is far easier to cut a 1000 to 650 then to stretch 300 to 650. The stretcher usually gets in trouble because that is when so many want to help and morph what you started out with into an entirely different story, nothing like you imagined. The over-writer usually becomes too attached to each word, as if they are children, and he or she doesn’t want to see anyone go. This is when getting help is great. However, DO NOT get help from someone who wants to change your voice! Be bold, be strong, and do not allow anyone to change what you have to say.
I strongly urge anyone to get some feedback; you can certainly contact me for a review or support. Remember anyone who helps you is simply offering suggestions, you have the final say. You can change and quite honestly you should change the wording to your own. If you are attached to certain details, then keep them in. But if your details detract from the story, take the suggestion and cut them out.
I had a wonderful client years ago, who has also graduated from college, and now she has an internet business and blog about style. She is quite accomplished. She crafted an essay with a few lyrics from a song she loved to sing in camp. As she fine tuned her essay, she spoke about herself. The more she evolved her own voice, the less those lyrics had anything to do with the essay. She had both parents take a crack at it, and then an older sister and brother. I saw every version.
It had ceased to be about her; the wording each relative added was so distinctly not anything she would use. She also began to feel awful about it. I asked her point blank which version she wanted to own. We went back to that…then I read the essay to her aloud, three times. Each time, I asked her if the lyrics to the song related to anything in the essay. It was tough for her to let go, but she did. She got into her first choice school. It was a sentimental loss, but it did make a difference in the flow of the essay.
Another thing to keep in mind as you read your essays: I always ask the students to look at their essay in the same manner any Admission Reader would-consider when reading what your transcript reveals about you, your test scores, your recommendations, etc. What are you telling Admissions about yourself? Does it seem reasonable? Does it reveal a new dimension but seem to be consistent coming from you? Some people will counsel that you should write your essay a complete 180 from the rest of your profile. I am 100% against this advice. I truly do believe a person who is thoughtful, will also consider the entire profile they are sharing. If you are being recruited for a sport, or talent, there is NOTHING wrong with writing about that sport or talent, but perhaps offer a personal view of who you are and why you are involved with that sport or talent. Share the depth of what all the passion is for you.
Don’t write about going to a soup kitchen because someone told you to add community service! Years ago, I was watching a National morning TV show, which was hosting several college admission people each day during October….I will never forget the one admission person I watched (she came from a super elite and prestigious university between metro NYC and Philadelphia), she recounted that if she read another “essay about a middle class kid finding humility working a soup kitchen” she would vomit. She also recounted the number one reason most students were accepted was because they rose to the top of the level they could obtain. She did not say that had to be in the top; she said that they challenged themselves to the highest capacity they could. So when a student has spent hours per week playing sports or an instrument that is an indication of rising to the top of a challenge. No one said it had to be academic. IT IS ESPECIALLY GOOD TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE BEING RECRUITED FOR, IF YOU HAVE OBTAINED A POSITION OF LEADERSHIP! That is rising to the top!
So these are some thoughts as I have been reviewing many college essays in the past few weeks. I see the best and the worst. Now is the time to get them into shape as next week, we are closing in on submission countdown for the Early choices!
Please, contact us for an expert review if you are unsure of what you have; it takes less than an hour, and is very affordable too!