The College Essay
I’ve helped a lot of kids with their college essays.
Let me be clear: I didn’t edit them or rewrite them or even correct their spelling.
I read them and then sat down with the student and asked a few questions. What do you think this essay says about you as a problem solver? What do you think you learned from the experience you’re writing about? Did it really happen this way? What other ways could you begin this story? What do you think makes this experience stand out? If you were reading this, would you want to continue reading after your opening sentence? What exactly is the topic you’re addressing?
What I tried to do was help a student focus on one or two important aspects of the essay, to sharpen the point of view to reveal something essential about the kid. And I always recommended that the student talk to others about his essay – his English teacher, the school librarian, his guidance counselor, his parents perhaps. By the time the essay was ready to go, lots of adults had looked at it and offered advice. And that’s not a bad thing.
But with all this adult assistance, I always thought, how important could the personal essay be in the admissions process? I knew for sure that the help I gave was nothing compared to the help some students may have gotten in other academic settings far different from my upstate rural school. My five years as the academic dean in a private independent school assured me I wasn’t mistaken in that regard.
But – I’m wrong. Trip Gabriel writes about his experience with the dreaded college tour that parents take when their kids are high school juniors. According to Gabriel, most of the college admissions people he met saw the personal essay as an important part of the college application. The essay, according to admissions people, is “the one element where a student’s own voice can be heard through the fog of quantitative data.”
Gabriel says that according to a 2009 survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 26% of admissions offices considered the essay of “considerable importance” in deciding who gets a place in their freshman class. Are you kidding me? As important as a 4-year track record in academics, school and community service, test scores, sports and clubs, special interests and abilities?
Gabriel’s take is that the essay requirement is unfair because kids aren’t prepared in high school to write from the first-person point of view. My take is that if admissions people believe that the personal essay accurately reflects either the student’s capacity for reflection or his writing ability, they are deluded. The essay, after all, is a group snapshot, not a personal documentary.
Of course, the data can end up being fairly similar. And the personal essays are a lot more interesting to read. But unless all applicants are put in a room, given the topic, and allowed the same amount of time to write by themselves, it’s not exactly fair competition.