Saturday, November 5, 2022

Acing the College Essay


Acing the College Essay

I answered a call for experts on the college essay by the New York Post.  Here are my answers to their questions about this high-value writing challenge: the personal profile, an essay that can make (or even break) the candidate’s chances. 

We are at the starting line for college applications. The early-decision deadline for many colleges is November 1st.  Between November and February, upwards of 5 million college applicants—including 65% of high-school graduates--will be struggling to compose an essay of 250 to 650 words in their “authentic voice.” The goal is to portray themselves as uniquely interesting college material for selective schools across the country.

Here are a few heuristics—rules of thumb--applicants need to know for this essay portion, the personal statement, of their application.  An effective essay is important because by itself it has an important job.  This is to focus, or refocus, the whole application: by putting a face and voice to the facts of student grades, activities, and awards, or to temper a less-than-stellar record by showcasing insight, values, and clear expression.  As essay coach Alan Gelb puts it in his book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, “…admissions office counsellors name the essay as the single most important ‘tip factor’—that is, the thing that can tip your application in your favor, all other factors being equal.” 

Q: What is your experience in writing and education?  As an academic editor and dissertation project manager, for several decades I have been an admissions essay coach, as well as Faculty Reader of the Advanced Placement test in English for the College Board.   

Q: Why is the college essay such an important part of the application process? The college personal essay is quite possibly the most important piece of writing you will ever undertake.  While something outside the main application, it can be a high card in your hand if handled well.  “It can turn around the way the committee looks at your other achievements, acting as the catalyst that can channel positive attention on to acceptance,” says Steve Goodman, admissions strategist and author of the results-based College Admissions Together.  Individual schools, and the central Common APP, issue specific “prompts” (which can change) to set the focus, including “Describe a person you admire,” “Personal growth,” “Learning from obstacles,” “Solving a problem,” and “What captivates you?” (Princeton Review)

Q: Can you point to a leading thing not to do in the essay?  Select your essay topic with the reader in mind, the admissions officer, who will give you under ten minutes to impress them.  (In-person interviews are increasingly rare).  The topic might not even be your intuitive first pick of what’s most important about your character and experience.  Think of something unique to you, your family, community, or values.  Example from a student client’s first draft: “I am unique.  You will never meet anyone like me.” My edit:  Everyone is unique; it’s what we do with that position that counts.  Here’s the question:  How did you mobilize your unique qualities to make a difference for yourself and others?

We then revised the initial statement to read “I realized that I could use my special talents to create value not just for myself but for others, from my family out to school and community.”  Then describe how.  Avoid topics that many others will gravitate to:  My trip to Israel (or European / Asian tour), gender or religious conversion, why I hate / love / admire my parent / stepparent, and political opinions, unless you are involved in political work.  Think of something either off-beat or seemingly ordinary to signal an important principle you learned, then applied

The goal of the personal essay is to show off your insight, self-awareness, ability to derive value and meaning from any situation (family business, volunteering, off-brand sports, assignments, reading, challenges from family, peers, authority figures).  Showcase your own specialized perception, talents, expertise, ideas, even hopes and fears, and the doubts you have struggled with—showing how you coped, managed, or overcame them, and how you were able to surmount resistance with resilience. 

Q:  What about other best practices?  This would be obvious to experienced applicants:  No texting spellings (e.g.,” I xpect 2hav evn mor xper”); use a translation program if you need one.  Don’t rely on your own judgment about how well you write; show your “finished” draft around to your English teacher, an editor online, your parents, assuming they are literate types, or other seasoned writers.  Your own peers, unless they are highly qualified, probably don’t make the grade here.

But here’s a warning:  admissions experts know immediately when an essay looks “cooked”: written over 50% by an expert.  It can’t be a world-class essay when your grades are Bs and Cs.  If it’s 85% mechanically correct, and the ideas are solid, that level will be fine.  Students tend to put off the essay until last, but it’s important to work on it over time, starting slowly the summer before the due date. (Yes! This means draft after draft as you discover yourself in the text.)  This is the critical piece you spend the most time building up by multiple drafts, a much-encouraged method, and each stage takes the time of close attention.  No matter how skilled a writer you believe you are, this is no midnight-the-night-before task.  As a reward, this experience will greatly strengthen your essay writing in all school subjects.

QWhat can make the essay shine?  Seek originality and insight-finding moments to describe and analyze.  This means going beneath the surface of people, incidents, and circumstances to discover what’s important and perception-shifting about them.  Dedicate the time to focus, mind-map, then gather together a good number of thinking pieces as paragraphs you can then pull together to construct your essay (and note any word limits to be aware of).  Find the unexpected insight, the extraordinary embedded within “ordinary” scenarios. 

The idea is to show perception wedded to knowledge (weaving in references to school reading), especially impressive to your admissions readers.  One of my clients wrote a winning essay about watching Bill Cosby as TV’s Dr. Huxtable for his medical school application; another covered her job mowing lawns with his father when the family economy got tight for a business school placement.  Responding to “most impressive historical event,” another wrote about the explorations and innovations of the Phoenicians as key to civilization-building—a personal view.  

Exploring the many concepts implicit in ordinary experience, or to themes of human experience, is the key to an intelligent take on the world (the same skill that marks great literature, in fact) signals you are perceptive acceptance material who will prove an asset to the incoming class.  

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