As a senior English teacher, every year I witness the pressures brought on by this seemingly innocuous piece of the larger college application puzzle. I spend time in the classroom helping students find their angle, and I read and re-read hundreds of college essays every year, giving advice and asking questions to help students find focus. I feel their pain -- the pain of feeling like this essay will make or break their future.
I tell my students that I can’t possibly know what their future holds, but I do hold fast to a promise that their futures will be bright regardless their ultimate college alma mater. But before they can claim that illustrious college diploma, the college essay still needs to be written. I, therefore, pass on my wisdom year-over-year, wisdom that comes from both college recruiters and my study of good writing over the past two decades. Here are my two-cents about “what” to include.
One, I tell my students to realize the college essay is the one opportunity they have to become a real person in a college’s eyes. Up until the essay, the college only knows students by what’s on the application itself: list after list of grades, club involvement, volunteer hours, coursework, academic awards. I tell my students to imagine a group of recruiters in a conference room reading through stacks of manilla folders, filled with application after application. At this moment, all students look the same. All students are involved in something, have a great GPA, volunteer and take tough classes.
And then they run across the essays.
It is at this moment, and not until, that students begin appearing in the room with them. The students “come alive” through the essay -- the students become real people standing right in front of them. That’s the goal -- write to become three dimensional.
Two, I tell my students to imagine the conference room situation again. Piles of essays. Piles and piles. In fact, some colleges receive up to 60,000 essays every year. How much time does the recruiter actually have to spend reading your essay? Probably only three to four minutes. This isn’t a lot of time, but it’s enough time to make an impact. Make him cry. Make him laugh. Make him feel something. The recruiters are human and have emotion. Tap into it.
Three, I tell my students that to make an impact they have to be a storyteller. Students have a tendency in their essays to want to regurgitate what has already been said in the application. These essays become a laundry list of high school achievements. Not only is this boring, but it breaks suggestions one and two and offers nothing new about the applicant. Let’s return to the conference room again. With thousands of essays to read and only minutes to read each one, the essay needs to set the student apart from the others. Just being the ASB president and founder of a club on campus isn’t enough, because thousands of other students from around the country have this same resume. However, if while reaching out to the community to build this club the student had an experience that changed his perspective about himself and his goals in life, then this is the story -- his story and no one else’s.
Four, and most importantly, I remind my students to tell their story honestly. I remind them not to make up hardships or try to fit a round experience into a square essay just because it’s one they think the recruiters want to hear. By doing so, the story becomes watered down and flaccid, a one-size-fits-all essay that ends up not fitting or inspiring anyone. These students run the risk of not receiving any letters of acceptance. Rather, I encourage my students to share themselves as honestly as possible and write an essay that inspires a few, the right few. Recruiters know what they are doing, so students need to trust in the process. The colleges that find inspiration in an essay will know their right-fit candidate, resulting in letters of acceptance -- and the promise to the student of a future as a college graduate.
But these first few pieces of advice really only tackle this “what” to include for the essay. How about next week we tackle the “how” -- the style of the college essay.
Stay tuned and start writing.