by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, author of Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day
Having led college essay-writing workshops for English teachers and guidance counselors (as well as students) in high schools throughout the country, I know that faculty members are generally eager to step in to help alleviate the stress. But many teachers and counselors tell me that they really don’t know what sort of essays colleges prefer nowadays. Even in this weak economy, or perhaps because of it, the competition to get into the most competitive colleges is still increasing. And teachers say the results of college admissions are often baffling. Some teachers report that they’ve seen their top students—outstanding essay writers with top grades and test scores—get turned away from colleges inexplicably. And teachers wish to be more helpful.
So at the risk of sounding self-serving, I should start by recommending my newest book, Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day. I have seen how application essays are what make the difference, and that application essay writing is a completely different art form than any other kind of essay writing. Having taught college and grad-school writing courses, I wrote this book with English teachers and their students in mind. It can be used as a class textbook, providing two weeks of ready-made lessons, in an enjoyable way. In fact, this book is based on entertaining workshops I have conducted for high school seniors. What students especially like is that in the course of the book, they get to play the role of admissions officers, choosing whom to admit. This can be lots of fun for a classroom of students. While the book works well for each individual student, when used with an entire class, the role-play gets magnified—both in fun and in usefulness. After “playing” admissions counselor, each student has a much better idea of what sorts of essays are most liked by admissions officers, and which ones get rejected. And what’s most helpful is that the book includes “score cards” to “score” each essay, so the teacher and students know objectively what kind of criteria are being used by the colleges, and can then grade their own essays accordingly. It’s the same old story: If you know the rubric being used to judge you, it’s much easier to nail the essay. By the end of the lessons, each student should have an original, engaging essay that fits most college applications, and the teacher comes out looking very heroic.
So aside from giving students the chance to enjoy some catharsis by playing “admissions officer,” what’s the trick to writing the best college essays?
A great story.
After all, English teachers know that grading a hundred (or more) essays over a weekend can be a very dull and laborious task—more so, if the essays themselves are boring. Imagine being a college admissions officer who has to read thousands of application essays or even tens of thousands, in the course of several weeks. After reading the hundredth essay stating “I want to get into your prestigious college for the beautiful campus, the outstanding professors, the diversity of students, the abundant interesting activities, and the perfect location…” (yawn, yawn), it’s difficult to stay awake.
So what do colleges want to hear? Not a conventional high school essay. If you’ve been guiding your students to “start with a topic sentence or quotation, end the first paragraph with a thesis statement…end the essay with a conclusion,” you’ve been guiding them incorrectly and are again putting admissions officers to sleep. College essays are not supposed to be scholarly, nor are they supposed to be flowery, packed with SAT words, or filled with flattery. They’re supposed to be convincing. They’re supposed to tell an engaging story. These essays provide the one opportunity for the student to truly communicate to the admissions officers who he/she is and why the college ought to accept him or her. If anything, the art form is more similar to grant-writing or even advertising. If the admissions officer falls asleep mid-essay, he or she will not be convinced to accept the student. He or she will not even remember the student when it’s time to choose!
What then is a convincing essay? A great story is convincing. A true story that portrays the student as academically energetic, inquisitive, intellectual, talented, innovative, driven, and compassionate is what makes a student appealing to colleges. What do you do when your students ask how to cram 16-17 years of their lives into 500 words—their own words—letting their “true personality shine through”? Tell them to just think of one story in their lives that typifies them at their best. Tell them not to attempt to cram their whole resume or chronology into the essay. Tell them that their “true personality” will naturally weave its way into the essay, just by their choice of stories and the way in which they tell it. They don’t have to force their “feelings” into the essay—touchy-feely syrupy essays are also boring to read. Nor do students have to quote anyone (unless the essay assignment is to base the essay on a quotation).
Parents can often be most helpful in this process, since parents are usually the ones who best know how to boast about their kids. If each parent can think of one exemplary story for his or her kid—one incident that caused the parent to boast during the kid’s high school years—that could be the main story line of the essay. Parents who have maintained a dialogue with their kids over the years should brainstorm with their children—especially kids with low self-esteem who never seem to remember their own best deeds and accomplishments.
In general, the best way to think of a good story is to first determine the student’s one strongest credential—winning the museum’s photography contest, placing in the discus tournament, speaking at a public rally, running the marathon, teaching English to a foreign student, raising enough money to feed an entire village in an underdeveloped country, getting the pothole fixed on Main Street, writing a string quartet, camping out on a nature expedition, volunteering at a senior residence, performing a ballet for the Governor, being named Employee of the Month, rescuing a dog from oncoming traffic, creating the perfect ice cream sundae. Then think of some personal anecdotes associated with that credential. Then decide which of those anecdotes is the most flattering to the student. That’s the essay story line.
Once you’ve figured out which story to tell, the whole essay process becomes a lot easier. Students even enjoy writing essays based on their favorite personal story. I tell students to write their essays as if they’re telling the story to their best friends. Start with the climax to pull the reader in, but instead of starting with a question (e.g. “Did I ever tell you about the time…?”), start with a statement: “Lightening came crashing down just feet from my tent in a field on top of the mountain…” “Just as the puppy ambled off the sidewalk, I realized I was the only one who could save it from the oncoming traffic…” “As the tornado suddenly jerked in my direction, I reached for my camera.” “In the height of the Battle of the Bulge, the veteran I had been visiting had crossed the Rhine River as the Germans fired at him.” “When the audience called for an encore, I hadn’t prepared any additional works, so I performed my own composition for the first time in public.”
These are the kind of essays that everyone is eager to read.