26 September 2016

A quick way to tell if your college essay works

A few years back, a student with whom I had done a handful of SAT tutoring sessions asked me to help him with his college essay. 

He was applying to a number of very selective schools, and while he was a solid, highly motivated candidate with excellent grades and recommendations, his scores were strong but not amazing. He did have a hook, but he was by no means a shoo-in. And since he wanted to go to medical school eventually, financial aid was also a consideration. The essay could be a real tip factor for him.

Understandably, he wanted it to be great.

Luckily, he had a clear — and very good — idea for a topic from the start, and we spent several weeks going back and forth with drafts, comments, etc. The usual. We hit the usual bumps and organizational issues, but all in all, it was pretty straightforward. When my student got stuck, I’d get him to just talk it out, and then let him take that material and mold it into something more coherent.

After a few weeks, my student ended up with what I considered a very good piece. He was, however, still nervous, not to mention still reeling slightly from what seemed to him like the inordinate amount of time necessary to hammer out barely 500 words.

“R.,” I said, “believe it or not, your essay was easy compared to some of what I’ve gone through. You started with a good, original topic that was genuinely representative of your interests; you stuck to that topic; and you developed it in a very interesting and effective way. You’ll get it in before the deadline, no one had a nervous breakdown, and your parents didn’t sneak in and try to change it without your knowing. (Yes, that actually happened to me once — sitting down a middle-aged man and explaining why rewriting one’s child’s essay and submitting it without her knowledge is a bad idea is not an experience I ever wish to repeat.) By my standards, it practically wrote itself.”

Still, he wasn’t entirely convinced that it was good enough.

“Ok, fine,” I said. “Don’t rely on me. Show it to some people and see what they say. I want you to get feedback from other sources.”

He checked, and came back beaming.

“My friends said it sounded exactly like me,” he announced. And with that, the essay was pronounced a success. 

I was reminded of that conversation earlier today, when I talked to a friend whose son is just starting the application process. When I mentioned the story of my former student and his friends’ reaction to his essay, she immediately perked up. “You know,” she said, “I never really thought about it that way. You should really post that on your blog.”

So here it is: if you have a draft of an essay and are not sure whether it’s working, don’t just give it to your parents, or your English teacher, or your guidance counselor, or some random person on College Confidential who agreed to look it over for you.

Give it to your friends and ask them to tell you honestly whether it sounds like you. Your friends are the ones who listen to you day in and day out, and they’re the ones best able to judge whether your writing sounds like the person they know — without getting overly concerned about whether you’ve written what they imagine admissions officers want to hear. No, you don’t want to include anything that would raise red flags, but that should be a separate consideration from whether your essay sounds like you wrote it. 

Presumably, your friends like you for a reason. If you can convey some of the qualities that make people want to spend time with you in your essay, there’s a decent chance the admissions officer reading it will find you appealing as a human being as well. That person will have a list of your grades and scores and extracurriculars right there; your essay is there to show something about the person behind those statistics. 

Think about it this way: admissions officers are people. They have thousands — literally, thousands — of applications to get through in a fairly short period of time, and things can get pretty tedious after a while. Most college essays tend to sound pretty alike. (Trust, me I’ve read enough of them to know).

I think it’s pretty safe to say that most readers want nothing more than to come across an essay that distracts them from the drudgery of what they’re doing; that genuinely entertains them for a few minutes; that makes them stop skimming and start really reading.

That is something almost impossible to accomplish unless you write something that sounds like you telling a story (albeit a coherent, grammatically correct, polished-but-not-too-obviously-polished story). Sure, you can try to fake it, but doing so effectively usually involves a thoroughly unnecessary amount of time and effort. If the person reading your essay comes away feeling that they know you a little, that you’re someone they’d like to have a conversation with — that you’re the funny/caring/goofy/sympathetic/generally cool person your friends like to hang out with — that’ll probably be enough to at least get you a closer look. 

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