College Essays: Your Kid’s Ticket ?
According to Forbes “ …more than 80% of U.S. bachelor-degree granting institutions will not require students seeking fall 2023 admission to submit either ACT or SAT standardized exam scores.”
I find this both interesting and exciting. What it means is that smart kids who just don’t test all that well will be getting more opportunities AND a lot of those opportunities will be contingent upon a students’ ability to differentiate themselves via a college essay.
Think about it: at most schools, students who apply will all fit the same general criteria. There will always be outliers who look at a school as either a reach or a “safety” in their minds, but for the most part applicants will be very similar. This fact makes it exceedingly important for a student to write an effective college essay. I have been writing recs and helping my high school English students put together college essays for 30 years, and I have some pointers for you and your young’uns
MOST PEOPLE LIKE VANILLA, BUT NOBODY LOVES IT
What I mean by this is a college essay is the ONE chance you have for the admissions office to actually hear your voice. You have to make it interesting. Bland, vanilla stories about your high school accomplishments, activities, or achievements are as plain as vanilla ice cream or as a plain ass rice cake.
Your words are being read by someone who probably doesn’t want to be reading them. They may be on their 500th essay of the day before yours rolls around, and you have GOT to make them WANT to pay attention to you. Don’t merely reiterate what they can read on your application already.
AMPLIFY YOUR VOCABULARY, BUT BE YOU
There is nothing that makes me suspect a student is trying to pull a fast one on me like bombastic words ( yeah, you could probably say “You warn against this yet you use the word ‘bombastic’- well, yes I do, BUT I use it in every day speech too! ). When a kid writes something like “ The enormity of the impending application process imbued in me a sense of trepidation and despair, yet it also catalyzed a sedulous explosion and a fastidious attention to detail” I want to barf. So, maybe on occasion a genuine kid who just has an inflated vocab actually wrote something such as this , but in general kids don’t talk this way and trying to be someone you aren’t isn’t likely to work in your favor. Proofread, be meticulous, maybe run a few new words up the flag pole, but DON’T try to be Shakespeare.
ANSWER THE QUESTION!
Most college essays will begin with some sort of prompt. Make sure that your essay addresses the prompt and/or answers the question. In this day and age of limited attention spans, it is very typical for a student to ramble off topic and ignore the words on the pages right under their noses. This is going to get worse before and if it ever gets better, so when you write your essay have someone else you trust, preferably an adult, read it just to make absolutely sure you thoroughly addressed the question.
PICK A GOOD TOPIC WHEN GIVEN THE LATTITUDE TO DO SO
I am just going to say it like it is: the story of your youth sports’ team winning the championship against the odds is a shitty idea for an essay. It has been done and done and done and done. Did I mention it has been done? Also, your grinding out a grade and changing your attitude is similarly trite and similarly common. It will also likely similarly bore the hell out of the poor soul reading it.
Think of an experience unique to you: maybe you got a bad haircut once and had to endure scrutiny and ribbing but came through. Maybe you are the type of kid whose face erupts into a relief map of the moon the second you have a big date or a picture day and you had to persevere over that. Maybe you had a passing interest in an extremely talented street musician whose art caused you to pontificate about all the undiscovered talent in the world. Those are the kind of experiences which allow you to be serious or humorous and to mix the two without being …boring or hackneyed.
WHEN POSSIBLE, DEVELOP A MOTIF
Believe it or not, when we prepare to write college essays , I have my students listen to and watch country music videos.
Country music songs are often cyclical in nature and do a great job of telling a story within that framework. Often, a simple turn of the phrase changes the meaning of the work and even more often, the opening lines of the song return at the end to “wrap up” the song quite nicely. In case this doesn’t make sense, please listen to the songs above and I think it will. I will also give an example in the next section.
NOBODY LIKES THE PREVIEWS!
So, picture this. You arrive at a movie theater for a 7:30 PM movie. You know there will be previews, but as preview after preview rolls on, you realize that the movie company is inundating you wit superfluous information in order to part you and your money again further down the road. Many people inadvertently mimic the movie previews when they write their college essays.
For example, look at this: I remember being in fourth grade. I had this teacher named Mrs. Dandridge who always told us that we could come to her and ask about our grades any time. So one day, I did.
Yawn. Boo. I suck
Now try this : “Yes?” hissed the elegant , stern looking woman as she stared at me from behind her teacher’s desk admidst all the brightly colored plastic chairs and other flotsam indigenous to a fourth grade classroom.
“ May I help you?”
I knew she didn’t recognize me, but I recognized her just fine. And, I was no longer a quivering fourth grader ready to swallow his pride to circumnavigate her ire.
Fourth grade was fifteen years ago, and although seeing and hearing her still may have rattled me, it now rattled me in such a way that I knew I was going to have a lot of fun telling her just how wrong she had been about me.
Better no? Damn right it is.
When you write a college essay, get your reader into the action right away. You can always back track to explain situations, but the quicker you hook the reader the better off you are, and in the case of a college essay you don’t have much time.
So, there ya have it! These are just six quick tips from a dude who has been in the game a long time. And, having been in the game a long time, I have many great memories even if being fairly paid is never one of them. One of my greatest memories was when the Harvard admissions office actually took the time to write me a personal letter thanking me for my student recs and for helping the kids craft their essays. I ain’t saying the essay or my advice is the Golden Ticket, but I ain’t saying it ain’t either! (See, the golden ticket is a motif. Thanks WW!)