Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay?

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.


As the college search for many of you begins in earnest this summer, here’s one way to ruin your summertime: Start talking to your child about completing the college application essay. Now, as you all know, some colleges require more than one essay and usually the second and third supplementary essays for those colleges, for example, are shorter and more geared to a specific question related to the college itself than the main essay, like the one in the Common Application. We gave one perspective on college essays way back in Episode 22 and another in Episode 49 when we recounted some sad experiences we had reviewing the college essays of about 100 kids in a top New York City high school. Today, let’s talk about that main essay.

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay? on USACollegeChat podcast

In this episode, we would like to chat about what might be at the crux of the problem in putting together a compelling essay–and that is sounding original and impressive when the applicant is still a 17-year-old.

1. The Common Application Essays

Remember, first of all, that not all colleges require essays, particularly community colleges. But let’s start with the Common App “personal statement,” which most students who have to write any essay will find themselves writing. Since over 600 colleges take the Common App, these essay prompts are likely in your child’s future.

The Common App essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, for that reason, the Common App people can tell you which prompts were the most popular. Here is the breakdown as of last January (quoted from The Common Application website):

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I have to say those figures seem entirely understandable to me inasmuch as I, too, think that the essay prompt that proved to be the most popular is likely to be the most straightforward to write about and the most likely to be easily adaptable to most kids’ situations. But let’s look at the exact wording of all five options (quoted from The Common Application website):

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (47 percent)

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (17 percent)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (4 percent)

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. (10 percent)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (22 percent)

On the whole, I think these are reasonable prompts and relatively interesting prompts (without being overboard interesting) for high school seniors, though I do think that the writer has to be careful to bite off something that he or she can chew. For example, students, I wouldn’t suggest choosing global warming as a problem you’d like to solve unless you can say something very specific, unusually persuasive, and ideally somewhat original about it. It’s hard to propose the solution to an international crisis in 650 words.

2. Hugh Gallagher’s Essay

When I was in Maine this weekend, college admissions expert Allen Millett told me about a college application essay that was news to me–though I guess people who do online dating have been stealing from it for years. Allen had heard about it some time ago from his colleague at New York University, the college that admitted the student who wrote the now-famous essay. That student was Hugh Gallagher, who said this in his 2008 video interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It was 1989 and I was applying for colleges, and I thought it was really absurd for them to ask me at that age, you know, who I was or what I’d done because I hadn’t done anything.

I feel as though truer words were never spoken.

Anyway, Mr. Gallagher wrote the following essay in response to a question about significant experiences or accomplishments that helped define him as a person (that is, of course, a 17-year-old person):

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA.

I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid.

On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.

I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

Mr. Gallagher’s point is, I believe, obvious. This essay doesn’t solve your child’s problem of writing about himself or herself; it just points out how difficult getting a grasp on what a reasonable accomplishment or talent or interest or problem solution might be.

As with all assignments, the more time your child has to think about the essay and sort through his or her young life to consider what might make sense to write about, the better off you all are. And here is some excellent advice that I can’t imagine anyone will take: Try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that often many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.

3. The U.K. Weighs In

And now let’s cross the Atlantic and see what is going on with college essay writing in the U.K. Earlier this spring, the BBC reported that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles the process of admitting students to British universities, had noted that “[u]niversity applicants are overly reliant on a few ‘hackneyed phrases’ in their personal statements” (quoted from the article “University hopefuls urged to keep applications ‘personal'”. The BBC article quoted the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook as saying that “[t]he personal statement is supposed to be personal.” In the U.K., the essay focuses on why applicants are planning to study a particular course or subject and on any skills or interests they have.

To prove the point about “a few hackneyed phrases,” the UCAS published a list of the 10 most popular opening lines used by the over 700,000 applicants in their personal statements last year. Here they are (as reported in the article):

  1. “From a young age I have (always) been..” and then typically “interested in” or “fascinated by” (1,779 applicants)
  2. “For as long as I can remember I have…” (1,451 applicants)
  3. “I am applying for this course because…” (1,370 applicants)
  4. “I have always been interested in…” (927 applicants)
  5. “Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…” (310 applicants)
  6. “Reflecting on my educational experiences…” (257 applicants)
  7. “Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…” (211 applicants)
  8. “Academically, I have always been…” (168 applicants)
  9. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in…” (160 applicants)
  10. “I have always been passionate about…” (160 applicants)

So, maybe our U.S. college applicants are more creative than our U.K. friends, but maybe not. The lesson here, students, is don’t put the words “I have always…” in the first sentence of your essay–unless you want to be like thousands of young Brits.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *