Monday, October 11, 2010

Don't Be Afraid - Just Be Yourself: College Essays 2010 - Part 3

So we've heard from parents and a teacher who advises students on their college essays. Now it's time to hear from a college admissions officer. She provides perspective and some commonsense pointers.

"When the most selective schools say that the essay is 'considerably important,' we’re saying that it can be a decision maker, though still not as important as other factors. I always make a point of telling students that their essay can be the reason they’re admitted, but it’s almost never the reason they’re NOT admitted (as long as their English teacher approves of the usage and their parents would approve of the content!)

The student who says that he has “three minutes to stand out” isn’t far off base. I read every part of every application, but with over 1,500 to read in three months time, the applicant has only about three minutes to capture my attention. One of my colleagues once said that the essay should be personal enough that if it was dropped on the cafeteria floor without a name on it, someone would know whose it was. I liked that example a lot.

Finally, as far as knowing whether or not the essay was coached, I just assume that most students get some level of help but don’t hold it against them. It’s true that a fantastic essay that doesn’t match the rest of the application would be a red flag, but we usually give students the benefit of the doubt. I recall my student- teaching experience many years ago when I gave a student a B on an essay about chinchillas because it seemed too well written to be her work (she was an average student). It turned out that she had a gift for writing...oops.

The one thing I do look for is the ordinary essay with too many sensory details. I call it the 'sports at sunrise essay: The orange sun was just coming up on the horizon. The grass gleamed with early morning dew. It was the day of the big game, and our team was ready … blah blah blah.' Those always feel coached and over-written to me.

My key piece of advice to students is to allow themselves to be a bit more informal than they would normally be in an essay. It helps them come alive."

Two parent panelists had additional thoughts. One said a friend of hers in a private college in New York could spot the coached essays from a mile away. Another has a friend who interviews for an Ivy. She looks for students' passion about their interests. Without passion, no matter how good they look on paper, they won't get into that school, the friend says.

I suppose that to show unity with our students, we should all attempt to write personal essays. On second thought, bad idea. We'll need to conserve our powers of persuasion to apply toward our teens.

Today, special thanks to our admissions officer and to Kim Cook and Marla Richardson.

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