Friday, November 1st, was the “early application” deadline for many colleges and universities. And do I know this because I was applying to college myself? No, sir. But as a high school teacher, I had been thoroughly immersed in the college application process over the month of October.
With that in mind, I’d like to say a few words about the college essay, a topic about which I feel I can speak quite knowledgeably. No, I haven’t read as many essays as, say, a college admissions officer, but over my dozen years teaching high school, I have read enough of them– enough to recognize essays which are out-of-the-park amazing and ones which are, shall we say, formulaic.
By “formula,” I mean that certain essays follow a kind of blueprint. No teacher has ever taught this formula or given these blueprints to students, but somehow they all know about them.
Now, I need to acknowledge at the outset that, as of this year, the Common Application (“Common App” to its buddies) has made it a little harder to hand in a “formula” essay; instead of letting students write about whatever they’d like, applicants must now respond to one of the following five prompts:
- Option #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Option #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Option #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
These new prompts do, in theory, help thwart the “formula” essays– although I’m confident that the particularly wily students could shoehorn any existing essay into any one of these topics.
In my experience, the topics that tend to be the most popular for students to pursue also tend to produce the most formulaic, least effective essays. (I can’t tell if it’s ironic that the most popular topics tend to result in the least effective essays, or if it’s not ironic at all, since the very fact that these topics have been done three billion times before is part of what makes them so hard to pull off.) There are probably many well-worn topics, but I’m going to limit myself to three:
Formula #1: My Grandmother/ Grandfather is Awesome! This sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it to be. (Hey, I loved my grandparents, too.) But here’s the thing: often the student ends up saying so many amazing things about the grandparent that he forgets to talk about himself. So the college admissions officer is left saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything about the applicant.. but Grandma sure sounds great! Can we admit her?”
Formula #2: Big Game Victory! “We were down by two at the half. Coach gives us a pep-talk. Then with two minutes left, the ball is passed to me. I go left, I go right, I go left again. GOOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!! And I realized that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” I have read that essay many, many, many times over the past dozen years– and I don’t know if I’ve read one that I feel really knocked it out of the park.
I’m not saying this is the students’ fault, necessarily; it’s almost impossible, after all, to capture on the page the intensity of a nail-biting sporting event. Nor am I saying a person can’t learn something valuable from winning; it’s just that we tend to learn MORE from losing. (I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why the Common App folks added the “share a time when you experienced failure” prompt.)
Formula #3: “Habitat for Humanity Changed My Life!” I want to stress that the students I teach consistently amaze me. They are constantly volunteering, reaching out, helping the less fortunate. Truly, they put me to shame with some of the extraordinary things they have done. But then they write about these extraordinary things in ordinary ways.
The “volunteering” essays tend to follow this pattern: “I was a jerk, then I volunteered, and now I’m not a jerk any more.” Whether or not that is actually what happened is immaterial, The essay, then, ends up not being about their experience but about what they think other people want to hear about their experience. Students have a notion of what the essay is “supposed” to be– when in fact the essay isn’t supposed to be anything but authentic and interesting and personal.
One more thing about this: volunteering is fantastic, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression. As I said, I am in awe, honestly, of some of the things my students have done for others. However, I wonder if some students write about their mission trip not because it’s a good story but because they really want the college folks to know they went on a mission trip. The fact is… they do know. They read the application, after all. So my advice to students: maybe it would be better to write about a topic that shows something else about you, some aspect of you not reflected in the rest of the application?
Final word on this: I am not saying you can’t write a great essay about grandparents, or about the big game victory, or about Habitat for Humanity. You absolutely can. But it’s hard– not only because these essays tend to follow a pattern but because so many students have written them before.
On the other hand, if you wrote an essay about doing Habitat for Humanity with your grandmother, who then assembled all the volunteers into a team that went on to win the Big Game… well, now you may be on to something!