As an educational consultant and college advisor for the last twenty some odd years one of my main jobs is to read, edit and comment on student’s essays. This is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of my job but it can also be the most frustrating.
When I am working with a student on their essays our first task is to brainstorm ideas – find that one event or several tied events that bring light to a student; information that would otherwise not be found in an application. Once the topic has been decided I send the student off to get at the writing process.
Students come at the essay with a number of preconceived notions, usually in the form of “I really need to impress the admission officer with my treatise with a plethora of stupefying vocabulary and my ethereal perception.” Everything about this sentence is wrong – from the concept that the student has to be amazing to the use of words they would never, ever use except on an SAT Writing test. What university admission folks really want is…. wait for it…. an honest 17 years olds, heartfelt essay. Yep, that’s it! Nothing fancy or outlandish. Just a plain old essay with the following caveats to be aware of.
When I read an essay I try to put my mind in the space of an admission officer and to think what do I want to read and learn from this student. I don’t expect students to have had life threatening, death defying experiences – they’re teenagers. Most students at this age have had relatively mundane existences – no offense. I know that students feel inadequate, insecure, trifled by life that is mostly made up of going to school, doing homework and eating. Their life is normal and that is okay. Now, some students have had amazing and frankly life changing experiences, but truly most have not.
In the second part of this article I will address some specific examples of things that go wrong. But for now let’s focus on some points that are imminently important.
1. It’s application season, so get writing. If you haven’t started your essays, tick tock
2. Don’t make the essay the Mount Everest of your application. Yes, it is a daunting task but the only way to get started is to start
3. Be clear about what you want to write. List the most important personal characteristics you would like to detail in your essay e.g. leadership, responsibility, perseverance, communication skills, eager learner, and compassion, to name a few options.
4. Think of a story, for your experiences, that encompasses these qualities so you can highlight them
5. Remember personality is not just personal qualities, but also perspective, tone of voice and language that YOU would use.
6. Choose how you will attack the essay:
a. Choose one of the five questions and address your essay to that topic
b. Just sit and write what I call the vomit essay. The VE is an essay where you just write about anything that comes to mind about you. Vomit the words onto the computer. Give the essay a few days to percolate and then come back – what stands out?
i. Once you have figured out what you want to write, then tailor it one of the essay topics
7. Do and do not get lost in the details – make sure that you are giving the reader enough background information about your theme, event or person but not so much that the information takes over the essay. This is the toilet bowl essay – everything just goes swirling down. Make sure there is balance.
8. Finally, remember the essay is about you. Keep the focus on you!
Part 2 of this article will address specific potholes to avoid or be aware coming back to some of those listed above.
Until next time!