I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
Although the essays chosen as the “good” examples are well-written, I found the other 2 more interesting. Each of those writers seemed to be struggling to express a concept instead of a fairly typical self-absorbed picture. Obviously. the “good” essays are easier to identify with, but they are also rather juvenile. Our education system tends to reward the neat package, not the messy one. I’d like to think that both sets of essay writers deserve an excellent education.
The good news is, I can help. I’ve been in the Admission business long enough to have gleaned a few tips that I think are worth passing along. I also want to recommend our Essays that Worked: real essays submitted by real students who have since matriculated at Connecticut College. These essays are terrific.
I find these examples and the ensuing comments to be an example of just how subjective college admissions officers are when making their decisions. Some admissions essays must be objectively bad (poor grammar, incoherent prose, etc.) and I imagine that some must be objectively good, however, it seems to me that the great bulk lie in the middle. In that middle ground then isn’t the merit of one’s essay inextricably tied to the taste’s of the admissions officers reviewing that essay? Would a brilliant essay by Hunter S. Thompson be tossed out because the reader hated drug use and non-conformity? Would an essay by Tom Wolfe be rejected because the reader hated exclamations? Oh my! Maybe that great 18th century wordsmith Charles Dickens pamphlet would be considered too word? Or Hemingway’s to sparse?
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
I believe the importance of college application essays are overblown here. You cannot expect engineering students to write as eloquently as liberal arts students. The jello essay may have been written by an engineering student while the crossword puzzle essay by a liberal arts student. I hope colleges are not just looking for good writers. This country needs great engineers too! And you are not going to be impressed by many of their college app essays.
After that experience, my daughter put together her essays easily with my son’s input. She ran them by her college English and History instructors (she went entirely the community college route in lieu of high school). She got into Berkeley – that was her first choice.
I believe that students who don’t have diligent and involved English instructors who are willing to make these college essays a part of their curriculum or personal time are at a significant disadvantage.
Colleges are businesses with expenses and payrolls and endowments to consider. Use every tool you have to write a great essay, but grades and SAT scores still trump the
essays unless you can guarantee you’ll bring them their first ever College Golf Championship! (Might be a good topic to write about!)
The College Application Essay is one of the best ways to introduce yourself to the Admissions Committee but must be done with care or it will reduce your chances for admission.
The purpose of the essay is to reveal something personal about yourself to the admissions committee that isn’t conveyed elsewhere in the application. The first essay didn’t work because it was analysis of the merits of two versions of a song. I’m surprised that the crossword puzzle essay was offered as an essay that worked — it seems unoriginal, forced, overly dramatic, self-coscious. I read plenty of those as an admissions officer. The debate one worked because it revealed the author as an observant, empathetic and mature person. And for jello — I think that could have been a very funny essay with some good editing, and perhaps may have revealed the author as a quirky kid with a good sense of humor.
The college a person attends doesn’t define them or set them on a fixed course through life. Nevertheless, it is important and it does matter. In fact it matters tremendously to those students and parents who struggle through courses and bills to make their dreams of education a success, and that’s why it is so terrifying that chance and subjectivity play such a large role in the college admissions process.
In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the and in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
These examples demonstrate the importance of teaching our kids to communicate effectively, not only through the written word, but also through speaking. If kids can’t communicate their ideas through proper grammar techniques and through content, admissions officers have a difficult time deciding if they are an appropriate match for the school. Communication is key in all fields. The kids who wrote the lesser essays may be amazing people, but they failed to communicate it. Glenda