Episode 99: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part II)

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As I said last week, I am still mired in the swamp of college application essays, which I am reviewing and editing for 50-plus kids. As you might recall, my comments last week and this week are based on the essays of kids who attend top-ranked public high schools. Let me just say that all of the kids are smart and that all of them take honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Last week, we talked about the content of their application essays, and this week we are going to talk about the mechanics of those essays–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. Having great content is not enough–not for selective colleges anyway. Those essays should also be well written, following standard grammatical, punctuation, and other mechanics rules.

As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” What I meant was that they were making mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct in third grade. Well, I might have exaggerated a bit for effect. But, seriously, they were making some mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct before they went to middle school.

1. The Mistakes

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, highly respected New York City high school (the kind you have to take a special admissions test to get into), I made these points (among others) to the classes. You should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Pay attention to your grammar–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic grammar errors, including split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, no use of the subjunctive, poorly placed participial phrases, and incorrect or inconsistent verb tenses (like inexplicable shifts from present to past tense or vice versa and the total misuse of the past perfect tense).
  • Check your punctuation–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic punctuation mistakes, and by “basic” I mean the punctuation mistakes that kids should have stopped making years earlier. Kids must remember to put a comma before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, to put periods and commas inside quotation marks always, to use semicolons and dashes correctly, and to hyphenate compound adjectives before nouns. Of course, there are more. As I said to the seniors I was talking to last week, “Punctuation rules are not nearly as hard to learn as the physics and calculus most of you are taking right now. Just learn them.”
  • Be careful about your word choice–Tell your teenager not to use a sophisticated or “big” word that he or she would never use naturally in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher). I have found that kids typically use big words just slightly incorrectly and in a way that no educated adult would ever do. The result is that the essay just doesn’t read well; the reader is interrupted by an odd choice of a word that stops the reader in his or her tracks.
  • Avoid wordiness–Tell your teenager not to wander around in his or her sentences. I have often read a sentence of 20 words when 10 words would have said it better. Evidently, someone along the way taught the seniors in the two classes I have been visiting that short sentences are a no-no. That is ridiculous. Sometimes a short sentence makes the point best. It is arresting and causes the reader to stop short with a bit of surprise. A short sentence can be especially effective when it is found among longer sentences. That is great writing.

2. The Big Problem

So, here is the big problem: You can’t really fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time. The situation is too pressured, and there is too little time. Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry. But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do a bit better. You can start working to improve your teenager’s writing in a serious way right now so that next fall’s application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past two weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view. I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates seems able to do it?” His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade. She went over his written work and showed him how to improve it. She worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions. I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding. He said that he did not enjoy writing. But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing. It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom. It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made. It sounds slow and laborious, and it is. But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem. Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students. Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line by line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one. And that’s not all English teachers have to do.

So, parents, I believe this is on you. If you can help your own teenager learn to write well, then do so, by all means. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your teenager’s success than hoping for the best from school. Ideally, of course, you would have started this a lot earlier–back in elementary school or perhaps middle school. But better late than never.

3. Help from Johns Hopkins University

You all probably know of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. We spoke about it in Episode 47 of our virtual nationwide college tour. It’s an excellent, highly selective university–really as good as any university we have in the U.S. Of particular interest to all of you in the throes of application essay writing, however, is two helpful pieces on the JHU website. First, you can find nine great tips in a section called Tackling the College Essay. You will not be sorry you checked it out.

Second, you can find Essays That Worked, a section that is exactly what it sounds like. There are essays, nominated by JHU admissions officers, from the past four classes of admitted JHU students. The website explains the winning essays this way:

These entries are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and lists of activities provided in their applications. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us. (quoted from the website)

While JHU is not the only college that puts winning essays on its website, we will say that it does an especially good job of it. So, hats off to you, JHU.

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