Episode 98: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part I)

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In November and December, we will be doing a mercifully short series entitled “The Last Minute.” Because that’s what it is–the last minute for finishing up most college applications and getting them submitted. Of course, some colleges have Regular Decision deadlines beyond the first of the year (especially some large public universities), and some colleges have rolling admissions (meaning that they take in and decide about applications virtually year-round). And some teenagers have just brushed off their hands and submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications–but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be ready with some back-up applications just in case they are not admitted to the college that they (and perhaps their parents) hoped for.

In any case, I think we can say that November and December qualify as “the last minute” for many teenagers. That’s especially true for those who have put off doing the hard and sometimes tedious work of applying until now.

Personally, I have been knee deep in college applications lately. I have been helping some kids work on the entirety of their applications (and there are some glitches I would like to talk to you about, Common App staffers). But, in addition, I have been reviewing, advising on, and editing the application essays of about 50 more kids. Man, what I could tell you.

In fact, I am going to tell you about those essays in today’s episode and in our next episode. Think of it as a wake-up call to many of you parents and your seniors. My remarks are based on working with the essays of these 50-plus kids, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public high schools.

This week, we are going to talk about the content of the college application essays I have been reading, and next week we are going to talk about the mechanics–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. By the way, an essay must be great both in terms of content and in terms of mechanics in order to be noticed approvingly by the college admissions officers, who are swamped with thousands of them. Just think about what that would be like.

Now, we have talked about college application essays before at USACollegeChat. We chatted way back in Episode 22, and again in Episode 49, and most recently in Episode 80 at the beginning of the summer. I wish we could stop talking about this topic, but we can’t do that until your teenagers learn to write. As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” Soon, I will explain to you why I said that.

1. The Common Application Main Essay

Though not all colleges require essays, most applicants will find themselves writing the Common App‘s 650-word main essay or “personal statement” inasmuch as over 600 colleges take the Common App.

The Common App’s five essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, therefore, as we said back in June, we can tell you what percentage of last year’s applicants chose each prompt. So let’s look at those figures and at the prompts themselves again (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.” This prompt is the most general and most adaptable to any kid’s circumstances. Perhaps that is why it was also the most popular prompt, chosen by 47 percent of applicants last year. I feel as though your teenager might be at a disadvantage in choosing it, precisely because it was the most popular one (and, I am going to guess, will be again); thus, college admissions officers have to read it over and over again. How many times can they read an essay about scoring the winning point in the big game because a teenager thinks his or her super-meaningful talent is soccer?

Now, I am not saying not to write on this prompt if your teenager’s background, identity, interest, or talent is truly meaningful and hopefully a bit different, but I am saying to think twice and take a look at the other prompts first. One of the most legitimate uses of this prompt, I think, is by kids who have come to the U.S. from another country or by kids whose parents had previously come from another country and still speak their native language at home. Those kids probably do have a background that defines them, at least in part. But one of the best essays I ever read on this prompt was written by a kid who has a form of autism spectrum disorder that makes it very difficult for him to speak easily to others and who now has conquered most of its effects through an amazing amount of therapy and hard work. His essay made me want to cheer at the end.

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?” Even though only 17 percent of applicants wrote on this last year, I have read a few essays on this prompt lately, perhaps because I have been suggesting to kids that they try one of the less popular prompts. Here is what I then had to explain to quite a few kids: If you are robbed on the street or if you are bullied in school, that is not a time when “you experienced failure.” You didn’t fail at anything; society failed you. When something miserable is done to you, you didn’t fail. Yes, you might have learned a lesson of some kind that helped you be a success later. But, still, you did not fail. My heart just about broke for kids who wrote that.

3. “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?” This is likely the hardest of the five prompts to write about when you are 17 years old. My view is supported by the fact that only 4 percent of applicants last year chose it. Part of the problem is that it is hard to figure out the scale of the belief or idea that should be challenged. Is it capitalism or is it the dress code at the kid’s high school? It’s hard to challenge a big idea when you are 17, but the small ones can seem inconsequential. Recently, I spoke to an intelligent young man from a different cultural background; he was considering writing about the time he challenged his culture’s tradition of arranged marriages. In the end, he didn’t write on that, but I thought it would have been a great choice.

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.” Oddly, only 10 percent of applicants wrote to this prompt last year, but I believe it is a relatively easy choice. The prompt is helped by the fact that it includes the words “anything of personal importance, no matter the scale”; so the problem can truly be something in the writer’s personal or family life. The writer does not have to solve social injustice, and it would be naïve to expect that a 17-year-old could say something unique or unusual about a problem of epic proportions, especially in just 650 words. I recently read the essay topics of several girls who attend a prestigious high-tech high school and who wrote about speaking up for women entering STEM fields. I explained to them that they were not the first females to be working on that problem, though they naïvely sounded as though they thought they might be. A smaller version of that problem–like some bias the female student had to cope with at her STEM-oriented high school–might have worked. So, choosing a problem that is closer to home–something a kid actually has a chance of solving, at least for himself or herself–could make this unpopular prompt a good way to help an essay stand out to the readers.

5. “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Interestingly, this is the second-most-popular prompt, chosen by 22 percent of applicants last year. I have noticed that quite a few responses to this prompt have been about the illness or death of a parent, which caused the writer to have to take on more adult responsibilities at home. Of course, I found some of these quite moving, and I imagine that the college admissions officers will, too.

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, top-ranked New York City high school, I made these points (among others) to the classes, and you should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Make a memorable first impression–Tell your teenager to write a great first sentence, which makes the admissions officer want to continue reading the essay (when he or she has hundreds more to read). Many kids write the most boring opening sentence you can imagine. Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common (and boring) ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays. We begged your teenagers not to do that. Some kids, however, do a great job of that opening sentence (tell your teenagers that they are, in fact, the competition). Here are some:
  • “In the beginning, it was unidentified.”
  • “‘En los primer diez años de mi vida, yo no sabia como hablar.’ That was Spanish for ‘In the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know how to speak.'”
  • “For a typical Bengali Muslim girl, it is a given to learn how to read the Quran.”
  • “They look so comfortable, floating motionless with their eyes closed.”
  • Make a memorable last impression–Tell your teenager to write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression. I found that, while some kids had a great opening sentence, almost no kid had a great closing sentence. In fact, almost no kid had a great ending at all. While kids could start out with an interesting personal anecdote, they could not end on a similar note. Many tried to end their essays on a grand scale; they trailed off with platitudes and abstract, vague sentences that sounded as though they were on their way to ridding the world of hunger. It is often said that you have just one chance to make a great first impression. Well, your teenager has just one chance to make a great last–and, therefore, lasting–impression, too. As a sportswriter in college, I learned to end each story with some clincher–a line that was clever or funny or surprising or something else. It was one of the most useful writing skills I ever learned.
  • Remember what the point is–If your teenager is telling a story as part of the essay, the story is not the point. What is the point? It’s what your teenager learned from the story or experience or how the experience impacted his or her life. The story is a means to an end; the point is the end. The point is very likely the answer to the question posed in the prompt. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t get bogged down in the details of the story; the reader doesn’t need to know every single thing that happened.       For example, if the essay is about that over-used championship game (even though I have already said that a championship game might not be the best essay choice), then the reader doesn’t need every play in the last five minutes of the game. I am not making this up.
  • Make every word count– For the main essay in the Common App, there is a limit of 650 words, which is not really a lot. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t waste them. I think kids should use all 650 words, if possible.       However, tell your teenager not to write 650 words if he or she has only 550 words to say. Just leave it at 550. Extra sentences that duplicate thoughts that have already been stated will simply weaken the writing and make it less impressive rather than more.

As I have written before, here is some insightful advice that I don’t believe anyone will take. I gave it again recently and am still waiting for a first taker:

  • Tell your teenager to 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, all too 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. In other words, kids, you might think that Prompt #2 is for you, until you try Prompt #3 and you see how well that one turns out!

2. Supplemental Essays

Let’s turn briefly to supplemental essays. These are required by quite a few colleges, especially by highly selective colleges. Some of the topics for these essays are, in a word, ridiculous. I can’t imagine why they were chosen, but I guess someone believed that they would show an applicant’s creative side. When given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the more outlandish ones–unless that kid is particularly creative. However, there are three often-used topics that your teenager should already be thinking and writing about:

  • “Why are you a good fit for this college” or some version of that–I think that this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and somehow reference, in the essay, what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it.
  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. That is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay. For example, what led to his or her interest in computer science or music or biology or whatever–all of that is fair game for this topic. This is the place that I suggest pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine, and the story should be a good one. Pre-med majors are a dime a dozen, but if an applicant has a compelling story, then the pre-med choice seems more genuine. For example, I recall a young woman who explained that her mother has the breast cancer gene (which she and her sisters have a 50 percent chance of inheriting) and that her brother has a genetic disorder, perhaps related to the breast cancer gene (just now the subject of new research). This young woman made a truly compelling case for her interest in studying genetics and then medicine.
  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. Again, that is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay. This is the place for the story about playing on the championship softball team or tutoring in after-school programs for underserved populations or writing for the literary magazine or playing the violin or doing gymnastics or whatever it is your teenager does. One recent essay I read was about participating in an improvisational comedy tournament. That was a new one for me.

Parents of younger students, I am speaking to you now: This likely supplemental essay topic is just one more reason that your kid should have at least one activity that really means something to him or her and that he or she works really hard to excel at–rather than just a bunch of various random activities that fill after-school time and change from one year to the next.

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