Essay Advice from a Pro
Hello, my name is Ralph Figueroa, I am Director of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy. Before coming to the Academy, I spent 10 years as an admission officer at Occidental College and at Wesleyan University. I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 college applications in those ten years. But no matter how taxing the application reading period was, I always enjoyed college essays.
So, this podcast is designed to help you assist your students in thinking about those essays.
The key here is not to tell students what to write, but to help them find new ways to think about what they will write. To give them a new perspective on the process.
We all know that application essays are a critical part of the process, and we also know that they cause huge anxiety in our students. So why do so many colleges require them?
Colleges have a paper or electronic representation of your student: they have grades, they have your letter, they have teacher recommendations, they have standardized test scores, most of them. But they want more information, and they want essays for two main reasons:
*Writing is a critical skill. Whether your student becomes an actor, a poet, a doctor, or a musician, they need to have the ability to communicate effectively with the written word. They need to be a good writers, and they will get better in college. And despite the possibilities of abusing that process, the application essay is still an effective way of judging a students’ writing ability.
*Colleges want to know who your students are as people. What does the essay teach the reader about your student? This is an important question. A former boss of mine used to ask during committee discussions, “Would you want to be this kid’s roommate?” College admission offices think about these issues seriously.
I want to give you some Suggestions for college essays to pass on to your students…I will address these as if to the students directly.
Subject: Write what you know.
If you have never thought about a subject, don't write your college essay about it unless a college specifically asks you to do so. “I haven’t thought about this before, however…”
Your essay topic need not be unique: As an admission officer, I would happily read a hundred essays about students’ mothers as long as they are done well.
The topic must be meaningful to you, something you are passionate about: personal explanations of motivation behind an activity or talent or event.
Sometimes your essay will be read by someone who doesn’t care about your topic. So what? You can still write exceptionally well on a subject about which they would otherwise not be interested. Your passion and knowledge and genuine enthusiasm can make any topic interesting to a reader.
How personal do you need to be? This is a hard question. The answer is as personal as you are comfortable being. You may have serious issues that you want to discuss. Serious hardships, serious pain. That is fine. But don’t feel that you MUST talk about the most traumatic thing that has happened to you. If you feel there is something you want colleges to know, but don’t want to write about it, ask your counselor or a teacher to explain it on your behalf. Except for disciplinary issues. Those you need to talk about yourself, but not in your main essay. Attach an additional one for those issues.
Now don’t get TOO personal - some things I don’t wanna know. I have read essays about student’s romantic conquests, bodily functions, and tattoos on various body parts. No thanks.
BUT IT MUST BE ABOUT YOU.
Don’t try to write what you think the college wants to hear. You might ask, "What is it about me that I want to be sure colleges know?"
There are many things about you that admission officers would find interesting. A potential essay could be in your list of extra-curricular activities, such as these topics, all of which I have read about in essays.
Anybody ever raised an orphaned cow?
Anybody ever go to clown college?
Ever volunteer as an interpreter for surgeons in eastern Europe?
It could be in where you are from:
Ever lived in a different state?
Ever lived in a different country?
Ever teach French villagers how to make “real American pizza?”
Do you have sever allergies?
Do you have an obsession with rules of grammar?
Are you a champion swimmer who used to be afraid of the water?
How have you struggled with these things? How have you grown from these experiences?
Don’t write your college essay about writing your college essay. Old idea.
Don’t try to be funny if you aren’t: Can you laugh at yourself?
Don’t use gimmicks, (interlacing different topics, jumping around in perspective or time, etc.) but they sometimes work.
Don’t use different colored fonts, don’t draw pictures.
Its OK to take risks, but remember they are risks because sometimes they fail.
Using obscenity is a risk. Don’t do it.
The snappy intro: it is a kind of risk.
Show vs. Tell: do both
Do not write about Unicorns. Do not write about the prom.
Be honest: Be true to who you are. You need to be admitted for who you are. There are some students who will be less than honest in their essays. What can you do about that?
Be thoughtful Take time to prepare your essay.
***Answer the question.*** This is one of the most important points to remember. So many students write strong essays that don’t answer the question. The most common essay topic is “Tell about someone who has had an influence on you and describe that influence.” So many students spend so much time describing their coach, or their mother, or their uncle or their cousin. But they forget the second part of the question. What is their influence on YOU, the student? How are you different? What have you changed in your life, what is better or worse from having known this person?
This can be very hard to do, but you need to focus on yourself. This isn’t selfish, this isn’t egotistical. This is an important part of this process.
Get help appropriately: You know what that means. Writing need not be a solo endeavor. Have your teachers read it, have your parents. Don’t ask a lawyer
Read your essay aloud. Read it into a tape recorder.
Show it to your college counselor. (You need to review the essays at least once, not enough for an English teacher to do so. Many English teachers will rave about essays….)
In public speaking there is an adage which is helpful here, too: Be bright, be brief, and be gone
Don’t try to use bigger words, that’s not helpful. Does it have to be complex?
Complex writing doesn’t equal good writing. Again, the point about avoiding lawyers.
Stick to the word limit. Don’t obsess about this, unless you are using an online form, which may cut your essay off mid-sentence.
Don’t send screenplays or stage plays.
Don’t send poems –
THE SECRET: Proofread. Spellchecker is not your friend.
In thinking about your essay, you need to ask, Would your counselor know who you are? Will the reader hear your voice.
I have a friend who is a counselor who asks her students to slide essay under her door w/o name… That is a challenge.
The college essay is an important part of the application process. I hope that for you and your students it can also be a fun one, or at least an interesting one.
I tell my students to never forget that they have the ability to ASTOUND me, even after 8000 others have tried.
Good luck to you and to them.