Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Best College Essay is really a Conversation

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph. D

I’m surprised when students have trouble writing their college essays.  I hear these same students in the hallways, talking about everything from the answer to a complicated math problem to the great college they visited last weekend to the girl in Homeroom who has just noticed them for the first time in four years.  Students have keen powers of energetic observation about themselves and the world around them, but ask them to share any of those ideas in a college essay, and the silence speaks volumes.

It’s the title that scares them.  To the average high school senior, Essay either conjures up images of a high stakes speech where they have to create noble images, or a tedious five-paragraph exercise that provides modest information with little passion.  If they see it as a speech, they think they aren’t up to the task; if they see it as one more English assignment, they’re sure they don’t want to do the task.  Either way, they panic.

The best way to move forward is to see a college essay as a conversation. If they could, colleges would welcome you to campus and ask you questions for hours—but if they did that, no one would be admitted to college until they were 43.  To accelerate the process, they want you to talk on paper; let them get to know you by giving them a guided tour of your heart, your brain, and your life.  If you succeed, they will look up from reading your essay, and be surprised you aren’t in the room; indeed, they will swear the chair next to them is warm from your having sat in it since Tuesday.

Of course, there are a few don’ts to pass along as well:

Avoid the Four Ds.  Essays on negative life events can be very tricky.  Unless enough time has passed since the experience, the essay can be too personal, too much of a rant, or just too hard to read.  One rep said the general rule of thumb was no essays on the Four Ds—Drugs, dating, death, and divorce—but you get the idea.  If you want to write about a personal challenge, emphasize what you learned and how you grew—if you dwell on the details, the essay will not achieve its purpose.

It’s Not a Book Report  You may indeed think that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the best book ever written, but there’s a point where your analysis of the book becomes more academic (and about the book) than personal (and about you).  If you’re writing about your response to the book or how it influenced your life, the right writing ratio is a lot less about the book and way more about your life—in this case, it really is all about you.

 Grandma Barbara Isn’t Going to College  "Less is more" is also the case if you’re asked to write about someone who’s had an impact on your life.  It’s great you love that your hero was born in Scotland and learned the bagpipes at age 4, but that level of detail leaves less words for the college to hear about what you’ve done with the inspiration that special someone has given you—and it’s that story they want to hear. 

It’s OK to go on and on about Granny B if she’s applying to college, too; if she isn’t, a few specifics and a summary of qualities will nicely set the stage for what you think about all she’s done, and ways she’s made a difference in your view and interactions with the world. That’s the main entrée on the menu of the college essay—let the reps dig in to a generous portion.

Finally, let them age.Once you’re done with an app, hit Save and let it sit for two days; that way, you can make the changes that come to you at 4 in the morning, then hit Submit with confidence-- your full story is told.


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  2. The college essay provides a good opportunity to leave a long-lasting impression on the reader, apart from the interview and an efficient way to let the people in the admission know you closely. A person they like and remember through the college essay is most likely to be selected.
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  3. They think they aren’t up to the task; if they see it as one more English assignment, they’re sure they don’t want to do the task. Either way, they panic.

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