Post College Essays


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When Sue O’Connell’s daughter asked her to take a peek at the college admissions essay she’d written, the Chicago-area mom had no problem telling her to go back to the drawing board and start the whole process over. O’Connell wasn’t being cruel, nor was she the average mom biting her nails through the admissions process.

The former lawyer is a college admissions coach, someone other parents hire to walk their teens through the sometimes confounding process of getting into the school of their dreams.

[ What college admissions officers say they want in a candidate ]

Essay writing is just a part of that application puzzle, but it’s become an increasingly big one for college coaches such as O’Connell, a growing breed of professionals who get paid by parents to beseech their teenagers to dig just a little bit deeper to set themselves apart from their peers.

Just 500 to 700 words long, the admissions essay is make-it-or-break-it for your average high school senior. They have to be unique but poignant, smart but not smart-alecky. Kids have to sell themselves without sounding selfish or arrogant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other kids are doing the same exact thing at the same exact time, all trying to stand out.

“Not every college or university has the chance to meet every applicant,” says Stephanie S. Espina, director of freshman admissions at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. “The essay is an opportunity to get to know the student on a more personal level . . . a way for a student to convey their interests, passions, reflections or future goals.”

[ Want your child to get into college and have a good life? Here’s how. ]

But college isn’t just about kids’ goals anymore. Parents are involved, and in some ways that’s a good thing. A joint study by researchers from UCLA and the American Academy of Pediatrics that was published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015 shows a direct link between a parent’s expectation that a child will attend college and the child’s academic success in primary and secondary school.

But parental expectation is like the mythical hydra when it comes to college admissions. Where one head may be silenced with a glowing recommendation letter from a basketball coach or band director, another is already popping up to shout, “But what about that essay!?”

“Parents think there has to be a secret handshake to get into college,” says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He blames essay obsession on an obsession with prestige. Most kids may be able to get into their local community college, and if they have the grades and a decent set of extracurriculars, they’ll probably make the cut at a state school.

“Where the essay really counts is if you’re a bubble candidate, where your grades are just so-so, and at very highly selective schools,” Jump says.

Like counselors at other high schools throughout the country, Jump has seen a spike in the number of parents turning to paid coaches for that little extra help.

For parents who want to go even further, type “college essay” into Fiverr — an online marketplace to find freelancers to do just about anything for you — and dozens of responses pop up, offers ranging from ‘I will edit your college essay” to the more carefully worded “I will perfectly handle your college essay.” Other sites are less cagey, blatantly offering to sell you an admissions essay for less than $30.

“I think that is a terrible trend and a risky trend,” O’Connell says of buying your kid an entire essay. This may seem obvious, but there is clearly a market for it. “They’re going to write something completely generic. They’re not going to write what’s really in your heart.”

Not to mention the ethical issues that come with an essay that’s purchased outright. Paying for something and representing it as your child’s subverts the admissions process as a whole, giving kids an unfair advantage, says Carrie James, an ethicist with the Good Project at Harvard University. And of course there’s the message it sends to your child — that you can buy their way into college (and who knows what after) and that Mom and Dad will take care of the tough stuff in life.

“The longer-term ethical implications are important to consider as well,” James says. “What kinds of future workers and citizens are we nurturing through such practices?”

Most college coaches draw a very strict line between advising and “doing it for them.” Their job is to get kids to write the essay themselves, just a better version than they might have drafted alone.

“My counseling training has taught me to ask lots of open-ended questions,” says Ethan Sawyer, who counsels students on essay writing and goes by “the College Essay Guy” online. Instead of asking, “Did your parents’ divorce make you sad?,” for example, he’ll ask, “What was that like?”

“I also teach students basic screenwriting structure, as it’s a pretty efficient way of not only showing them how stories work but also getting them to think visually,” Sawyer says. “Personal statements are short films.”

Sawyer has gotten requests to write the essay outright, but he’s turned them down. Mostly, he sees kids who just need a little help, some prompting to get started or proofreading on the back end. Often those kids are in public schools where the counselors on staff just can’t keep up — not surprising when you consider the average public high school guidance counselor manages a caseload of 476 kids.

The fact that those public school counselors exist at all should give some direction to parents who are unsure whether it’s okay to give — or pay for — essay help. Some 30 percent of public schools employ at least one counselor whose exclusive responsibility is to provide college counseling.

Adelphi’s Espina says admissions officers do expect kids to get some help with their essay, usually from a guidance counselor, an English teacher or a parent, or even from the college.

“Many students lack the access to resources to fully grasp the process itself, including the importance of the college essay,” she says. “It’s quite common for [admissions] counselors or directors to provide free lectures-presentations on the college essay at local high schools or on their own college campuses.”

And if kids just seems out of their depths, O’Connell has this advice: “I tell kids if you’re really, really struggling, you’re not telling the right story.”

Sometimes they just need to be sent back to the drawing board.

Jeanne Sager is a writer and editor based in Callicoon Center, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @JeanneSager.

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More reading:

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Kids heading to high school? Here’s when to let go and where to help.

Part 7 in our series, “Who Gets into Harvard?”

We’ve already covered most of the factors that contribute to a successful Ivy League college application in our ongoing series, “Who Gets into Harvard”. The final factor, and ideally the place where all of the rest comes together, is the college application essay. When it comes to this last element, students evaluating their chances of getting into a highly selective institution need to be asking these questions:

Have I successfully pulled it all together in my essay? Am I interesting?

Everyone is interesting in their own way, so the better question is—can you be interesting in writing? There is no magic formula, but the alchemy of taking personality and engagement and translating it into a 650 word written document that shares something important about the writer comes close. There is no surer way for me to ascertain someone’s chances of getting into an Ivy League college once I know about the basics (grades, rigor, scores, involvement) than to see how they write, both in general and about themselves.

Let me say up front that none of the following are interesting:

  • Substituting rap lyrics, a poem, or a list of words describing how the college makes you feel for a formal essay
  • Writing a meta-version of an essay—here I am writing my college essay, and there you are reading it
  • Comparing yourself to an inanimate object such as a bottle of soda, your home, or your favorite city

Overly long, forced metaphors and essays trying too hard to stand out inevitably take away from the very things you want them to focus on—namely, one of the actual ways in which you stand out. And the worst mistake you can make is trying to write your version of the Costco essay or some other “best college essay ever written” being shared this year on social media.

How can you tell if your college essay is successful? Unfortunately, this is probably the toughest part of your application to self-evaluate. Unlike test scores, grades, curriculum rigor, and even, to some degree, extracurricular activities, it is very difficult to assess the quality of your essay by comparing it to what others have done.

Instead, start by asking yourself if you’re being authentic and if the writing sounds like you. Ask someone who knows you well to read it—can they hear your voice in their heads as they do so? Are you offering us insight into your world, helping us understand why you do what you do or how you think or what you care about? If you have a distinguishing excellence of some kind, are we learning more about what drives that passion? Can you sum up what we learn about you in a line or two, and does that summation highlight something unique about you in a positive way?

Ultimately a great essay is a bit subjective. I have loved essays that my colleagues have not warmed to, and vice versa. But there is no denying the power of a genuine voice and a meaningful story that feels true to the writer. If you can create an application essay with those two features, you’re at least on the right track.

In our next blog, we’ll start wrapping things up with some final thoughts.

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