14 December 2016

Why you shouldn’t always trust college essay books (just say no to community service trip essays)

If you’re a senior still in the throes of writing your college essay, or if you’re a younger student/parent of a younger student trying to get a jumpstart on the college admissions process, you may be in possession of book entitled something like 100 College Essays that Worked, or 50 Successful Harvard Essays.

In general, I have no particular bone to pick with such compilations. I think they often provide a helpful glimpse at a variety of topics, styles, and structures that successful applicants have used in their essays.

Just as importantly, they offer clear reassurance that students need not demonstrate they have imbibed a thesaurus in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams.

So yes, for a student who isn’t sure how to get started, these books provide a highly useful service.

However. From time to time, when I happen to be browsing the test-prep section of a bookstore, I pick up college essay books just to keep abreast of the latest trends. Many of the essays in my favorite such book, 100 Successful College Application Essays, date from the mid-80’s, but as they say, times change… In this case, not necessarily for the better.

The most egregiously awful advice I’ve come across, in America’s Best Colleges for B Students, is that students should structure their essays in standard English class five-paragraph format.

That is so wrongheaded in so many ways, but we can start with the fact that the essay is called a personal statement for a reason. You are not supporting a thesis; you are discussing something or someone important to you as a person. Provided the essay reads well, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the College Board has also produced a college essay guide (which contains almost no examples of actual college essays – go figure that one out) that gives similar advice. While there is, in an extremely broad sense, a case to be made for certain approaches to reading and writing emphasized by Common Core, there are also instances in which such an approach would constitute an absolute, incontrovertible disaster.

This is one of them.

Following this type of advice could push a borderline applicant without a knowledgeable adult monitoring the process into the “reject” pile at a moderate reach where he or she might have otherwise had an actual shot. So if the College Board is actually trying to improve the college prospects of disadvantaged applicants — those least likely to have a knowledgeable adult monitoring, or even aware of, the application process — they have an awfully funny way of showing it. 

Most books, however, at least emphasize that a personal essay is, well, personal, and that the rules of English class don’t apply.

And to be sure, plenty of the essays these books include are perfectly serviceable. Most are well-written; a handful are genuinely moving.

One problem, however, is that it is impossible to really tell from a standalone essay how much of a role that essay actually played in a student’s admission.

In the absence of a transcript, test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, information about athletic/legacy/minority status, and actual adcom notes, the only thing that can be gleaned with certainty is that an essay was not so poor as to result in a student’s being rejected.  

Furthermore, there is one section some of these books that is consistently, even dangerously misleading. That is…. the infamous “community service trip to a third world country” essay.

For the record, the worst offenders I’ve found so far are the Fiske College Essay Guide (Malawi/Africa) and 50 Successful Stanford Essays (the Dominican Republic).

At this point, I feel obligated to proffer my annual warning about this genre of essay: if you’re thinking of writing something along these lines, don’t.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just find another topic and let this one quietly fade into oblivion.

Any essay you write about your community service trip to an impoverished third-world country, during which you discovered how privileged you really are and realized that the poor people there are really better off than the materialistic people in the United States because they’re happy with their subsistence lifestyle, is bound to come off as (at best) naive and condescending.      

It doesn’t matter how shocked you were by the poverty, or how charmingly rustic you found the locals, or by how grateful people seemed for your attempts to help.

Committees slog through tons of these essays every year; you don’t need to add another one to the pile. Pretty much every admissions officer you ever ask will tell you to avoid this topic like the plague.

That’s not to say all community service essays are bad; it is, however, to say that the topic is so overdone, and the possibilities for cliché so ripe, that you should proceed with a healthy dose of caution.

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, both of the guides listed above provide pitch-(im)perfect examples of this type of writing. (Just flip to the “Community Service” section.)

To be honest, I’m really surprised they were included at all; using them up as examples is at best irresponsible and at worst actively misleading. All I can say is that the Stanford applicant must have been stellar in every respect otherwise.

If you’re looking for some good examples of essays that worked, I’d recommend the sample essays Johns Hopkins posts on its admissions website.

They’re not cliché, but they’re not too far out there either. Most of the writers come off as smart and curious and interesting and thoughtful – people you’d like to get to know.

Wouldn’t you like the person who reads your essay to think that about you too?

1 Response

  1. Dan Lipford

    Erica –

    To keep myself sane and give both my students and me clear guidelines on what to shoot for in app essays, I’ve distilled what’s needed down to the two following things, which all really good app essays accomplish, while mediocre and bad essays almost never do:

    1. Open with something that makes readers want to read the rest of the piece so that they’re following you willingly – even eagerly, if done extremely well – instead of being dragged along behind you out of duty to read at least part of what you wrote.

    2. Present yourself as an interesting person – somebody they’d like to meet and talk with – who’s likely to be a good student.

    If one pulls off those two things, the topic doesn’t matter, and that includes death, divorce, dismemberment, dogs, and community service trips, and even the prompt’s not terribly important as long as what’s written at least “brushes by” it

    Dan

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