Episode 142: What’s Wrong with Your Kid’s College Application Essay?

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Well, it’s officially November.  Some Early Decision and Early Action deadlines have just passed, and many others are fast approaching on November 15.  There is very little time left for those of you interested in submitting early applications.  As we said at length in Episode 138 and as we have repeated in the past few episodes, we think that all of you should be applying Early Action to all of the schools on your list that have an Early Action option and that some of you should be applying to your first choice under the Early Decision option.  So, think about that one more time while there is still time!

I thought a long time about whether to do today’s episode on college application essays.  It seems like such a tired topic–one that everyone gives advice about–and we have done a number of episodes on this topic already, though not since last February (go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110).  And yet, I continue to be surprised at how little many parents and teachers know about the common and supplementary essay requirements in college applications.  I am in the throes of reading and editing The Common Application main essay for about 60 high school seniors right now–that is, the main essay that is written to one of seven prompts supplied by The Common App people and that will be transmitted to any of its more than 700 colleges and universities if your kid applies to any of them (which he or she almost undoubtedly will).  Please re-listen right now to Episode 110 if you aren’t familiar with The Common App essay requirement.

As I have done for the past couple of years, I have spent almost a week in the classrooms of one of New York City’s best high schools (indeed, one of the nation’s top 75 high schools, according to U.S. News & World Report).  As a result, I have a few things I would like to say–again–though I am not sure we can say it any better now than we did in those previous four episodes.

1.  The Sad Truth

I am going to talk to you today–as I have done before and hope I never have to do again–about the sad truth that many, many, too many high school seniors cannot write.  I will not talk to you about the many, many, too many grammatical and punctuation and word choice mistakes that I see in 9 out of 10 essays I read.  For an elaborate discussion of those mistakes, go back to Episode 99.  But, trust me, the mistakes are there, and they are inexcusable for high school seniors as well as extremely distracting to any college admissions officer trying to get through hundreds or even thousands of similar essays.  I can’t imagine that some essays, written as they are, even get read all the way through.

Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To pay attention to grammar–To watch out for split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, poorly placed participial phrases modifying the wrong word, incorrect and inconsistent verb tenses, and the lack of agreement between nouns and pronouns
  • To check punctuation–To watch out for random commas inserted for no reason, commas that are left out before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, periods and commas inside quotation marks always, and the random use of semicolons
  • To be careful about word choice–To watch out for sophisticated or “big” words that he or she would never use in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher) and that, therefore, he or she is highly likely to use slightly incorrectly
  • To avoid wordiness and repetition–To watch out for sentences that have too many irrelevant and/or unnecessary words and to watch out for sentences that say the same thing as previous sentences (often in just as vague or unconvincing a way)

I will also not talk to you about the finer points of writing most essays–this college application essay or any other.  For an elaborate discussion of those finer points, go back to Episode 98.  Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To make a memorable first impression–To write a great first sentence, which makes the college admissions officer want to continue reading the essay, when he or she has way too many more to read (Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common and boring ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays.  U.S. kids do that, too!)
  • To make a memorable last impression–To write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression on the college admissions officer (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that almost no kid can write a great last sentence or really a great ending at all.  Many kids ended their essays on a ridiculously grand scale in an overly dramatic way that does not fit almost any teenager’s life story.)
  • To remember what the point is–To include what he or she has learned from the story or experience or reflection that the essay is about or how that story or experience or reflection impacted his or her life (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that many kids get bogged down in the details of a story they are trying to tell in the essay and forget what the point of that story is.)

 

2.  Another Sad Truth

And let me talk to you about another sad truth–the fact that some kids don’t seem to have anything to write about.  Parents, let me make this very clear:  No amount of editing–including by your teenager’s English teacher or by the most expensive college admissions consultant you can find to work with your teenager–can save an essay that is not really about anything.

To be fair, some kids have a great idea for an essay right away; in fact, some kids, have more than one great idea, though not as many kids as you might think.  I have also found that some kids can come up with a decent topic after a long talk with me about their young lives–about their families, their hobbies, their school activities, their jobs, their career hopes, their volunteer work, their academic failures, and their personal successes.

However, some kids actually can’t come up with anything to write about.  They can’t think of anything that makes them special or interesting or appealing as a candidate for college admission.  But that’s what this essay is:  a way to look desirable to a college, whether your appeal is your brains, your kindness, your insights, your perseverance, your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your generosity, your inventiveness, your quirky outlook on life, your triumph over adversity, or something else.  The college wants a glimpse of you, to be sure, but it had better be an appealing one.

I was chatting recently about this last group of kids–the ones with no ideas for the essay–with one of their teachers.  I was asking why she thought these kids didn’t have anything to write about.  She said simply, “They don’t do anything.”  Of course, they come to school and do their schoolwork–most of them quite well.  Many also take part in the standard bunch of school activities, play on a sports team, and take music lessons.  But how many essays can a college admissions officer read about a kid who loves the piano and did really well in a statewide music competition?  Or learned about perseverance and hard work by playing on the football team?  And here’s my favorite:  learned how to be a more effective person from playing video games (I have read more of those than you might think).  So, what do these kids do outside the box?  What do they do or think or care about that makes them just a bit different and more memorable than a thousand other kids?  What makes them the kind of student a college would want?

Parents of younger high school kids, it is time to start thinking about what it will be like at your house when essay time comes–while there is still time to encourage your kid to engage in activities and causes and scholarly pursuits and cultural events and family life and community life worth writing about in a college application essay.  Here’s why this is so important:  I bet that many colleges would rather accept a kid whose essay is inspiring or enthusiastic or compelling or intriguing–even with a small grammar or punctuation mistake or two–than a kid whose essay is superficially picture perfect, but has no substance.

Parents of younger high school kids, I can make your kid’s essay superficially picture perfect, but I cannot really give your kid an experience that he or she can write an essay about.  Only you can do that for your kid and with your kid, based on the experiences of your lives.  So, start thinking.

And let me remind you again, parents of younger high school students and parents of seniors, don’t forget to check out the seven prompts for The Common Application main essay (see Episode 110).  You will see that they are reasonable options for kids to write about and, hopefully, you might get an idea of how to help your kid–now or next year or the year after that.  By the way, this year’s prompts are very similar to last year’s (with a couple of additions), so there is no reason to believe that they will change totally for next year, either.

3.  Coming Soon in Our Next Episode

So, I feel as though this episode was more of a rant than anything else.  I apologize for that, but this is the third year I have had this college application essay experience.  I don’t want to have to talk to you about this again next year, parents of younger high school students!

Last year, I told the kids I met with at the well-known New York City high school that I mentioned earlier, “You write like third graders.”  This year, I said something even scarier and more objectionable to them.  Join us next week to find out what I said to them and to consider with me how to fix the problem that our high school students can’t write–and that’s a problem much bigger and much more important than whether a kid gets into one college or another.  Unfortunately.

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