Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fear and Loathing: The College Essay 2010 -- Part 1

What makes the college application essay such a popular discussion topic? There must be hundreds of articles and blog posts each year on this rite-of-admissions passage. Tips abound on how to write the standout essay.

Why is it so talked about -- and reviled? Is it that the outcome seems so subjective? (As one mom, who is in publishing, says, two different people can read the same thing and walk away with totally different opinions.) Or is it the sense that just a few hundred words can make or break an application?

So I turned to the Mom's College Cram Course Panel members for their anecdotes, advice and words of caution. In this three-part discussion (running consecutively), we will look at the essay from the front line (parents and teachers) -- and the front office -- admissions.

The College Essay -- From the Homefront

One mom understands why the essay is an important part of the application. As she says, "Life is all about communication, right? Even the most brilliant mathematician has to get his ideas across somehow." She also points out the need for a good editor. And that's the tricky part -- everyone needs an editor for any important piece of writing. But there's editing...and there is over-coaching. More on that later.

Another mom relates how her child's counselor says he wishes schools spent more time reading the personal essay than the transcript, since more can be discovered about the whole child in that missive than in the grades. This mom advises against tweaking or polishing. "Instead," she says, "we have conversations where our daughter can muse and self-reflect -- and those chats have been helpful in finding a topic."

Then there are two reports on the actual writing -- and the time frame in which it was achieved. Despite all we hear about the benefits of essay creation being an organic, ongoing process, reality is often quite different.

"My daughter wrote her essays a night or two before the absolute deadline. While it's probably not preferable to procrastinate to that degree, good writers can get away with just about anything," said one mom. She also recommends the novel Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a former Princeton admissions officer who includes excellent essay advice.

Another mom said, "My daughter, who had previously been pretty good at getting stuff done, turned into a procrastinator when it came to the college applications. After the stress of junior year, I was really picking and choosing my battles very carefully. She was adamant that she could handle the process without any help or interference. After a couple of fights about it (and in order to preserve family harmony, and our sanity), her dad and I decided to take her at her word. Other than proofreading the essay for grammar mistakes we offered no advice or criticism on the essay itself. It was rather freeing to leave it in her lap...and since she is at a great school and is ecstatically happy, I am very glad that we bowed to her wishes."

Finally, one mom said, "I hope that my daughter writes with her heart -- and spells everything correctly when the time comes to write her essay." Amen.

Many thanks to Kim Cook, Jeanne Hogle, Marla Richardson, Tina Squyres and Sarah Wohlenhaus.

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