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.

So here are some of the common mistakes that kill an essay:

The number one killer from an admission officer’s perspective – Not answering the question!!!!! ‘Nough said. Well, read the question and answer it. It speaks to your intelligence.

Number two mistake – sports stories. “I single-handedly pulled my team together when we were losing by twenty-five points, to rally AND score the final winning shot to win the game and the respect of all my peers!” There is a whole lot wrong with this, even if it is true. First – single-handedly, yeah maybe but sports are usually team sports. Most teams have a coach and even if they don’t, really! Secondly, no one cares that you earned the respect of “all your peers”. The essay is not about winning, it’s not about accolades but it is about self-reflection. Sports stories are usually the number one go to topic (for boys) and perhaps the one most dead essay choice. By the way, respect does not come from winning the game – it comes from leadership and good choices, it comes from respecting others (as noted here, the student won the game all by himself), it comes from good communication skills and it comes from taking risks, to name a few important qualities.

Number three – vague references and off topic or grand statements. “I learned so much from my father, it changed my life” or “I spent two or three hours collecting all the materials that I needed”. What exactly did you learn? What materials? Be specific and provide great examples to support ideas. “I want to realize my dream” is so vague it causes my gag reflex. “I want to change the world” Wow, can’t wait! How will you change the world? Think instead of learning as a process that will lead to your goals (specifically used word), but again be specific.

Here is one from a student applying to a specific school answering the “why our school” question: “Simple Calculus including Differentiation was the obstacle to get the highest grade when I was in 10th grade. Before this, every topic was so easy that I could get the great grades. However, with my conviction, I continued solving past papers until I could understand them all. Eventually, I could pass through the crisis by getting the highest grade for the topic. And the course, Algebra and Calculus, seems to have so many hardships, but I believe enjoying the hardships is one way to conquer the mathematics.” Aside from being long winded, this last example has nothing to do with the essay, is so far off topic and provides information that is not necessary, in this context. Instead, I would want to read how he challenged not just the math curriculum but how his choice of courses relates to the programs at the school to which he is applying, even if he is applying undecided.

Number four – using vocabulary no normal native speaker would use or using big words in the wrong way or context. “Abnormal extraneous verbiage eradicates the oblique nature of my epistle only to confound the reader into rhapsodies of punishing tediousness.” I think you get the point – no one talks like this, especially teenagers or language learners.

The last example – getting lost in transition. Sometimes students focus so much on telling a story about an event, place, person, they forget to write about themselves until the end of the essay. They get sucked so deep trying to explain the example, they miss out on the real topic – themselves. Remember words are limited, use them all wisely.

As a reader, I want a clear simple story that tells about a genuine experience, or more than one experience. I want to leave knowing more about the student than when I started. I don’t want information repeated that I could find elsewhere in the application. I want the writer to explore and think deeply about their life experience and how they changed.

There is no question that writing this kind of essay is hard, even for adults. So – keep it simple, be clear about the qualities you want to reveal, tell a good story about you.