The Crabby Counselor Talks About the College Application Essay

My guest blogger is back with some advice about the college application essay.

As an English teacher, college admission officer, and college counselor, I’ve read thousands of college application essays and actually have looked forward to reading most of them, but there’s a lot of junk out there, even from otherwise good students. Their writing ranges from the really terrific to the stupefyingly dull and misguided, while also sometimes revealing more than the writer probably intended. Granted, the writers are teenagers, but sheesh! Sometimes I had to wonder what they were thinking. Or perhaps what their advisers were thinking.

Before we go any further, let me warn you not to be cute in your essays. That is, no crayon, funky fonts, or writing in a spiral (I’ve seen them all). No writing a foreign language without a translation. No colored paper or origami. (You’d be surprised.) As much as I love to get handwritten letters, I do not love getting handwritten application essays. Type and proofread them! It’s the least you can do.

Now what? Well, for one thing, don’t read any of those “Essays That Got Us Into Heaven” books. They stink and they will only inspire you to copy tone, style, and so on, consciously or not. Besides, while they may have helped those particular students cap their applications, there was certainly more to them than their prose. If you want some essay inspiration, read actual essayists like E.B. White, David Sedaris, Caitlin Flanagan, or any other smart published authors of your choice. You should be reading them anyway! I’m always a little surprised and saddened when I realize that for many students, writing the college essay is the first time they’ve had extensive essay instruction. Ask your teachers for some recommendations; even scientists and mathematicians can point to Steven J. Gould, Stephen Hawking, and others.

Would it kill you to be funny? I know it’s a risk but some of the best essays I’ve read have been by students who tell stories on themselves, like the kid who rode the bench for his high school soccer team but never missed a game or practice. He knew he wasn’t a great athlete but he was a team player and a dedicated guy and we liked him a lot. It’s a relief to read an essay where you don’t learn about the mysteries of the universe but do realize you’re just a small cog in it. You don’t have to be perfect, just human.

I know you’re asked ridiculously big questions and told to answer them in 350 words or so. (By the way, no one counts them.) So take some time to pare your answer down to something specific. Remember synecdoche? Metonymy? Metaphor? Sure you do. They’re your best friends in the college admission essay world. If you’re asked to write about an influential person, don’t give me a biography, just a compelling incident or characteristic. I can guess the rest.

Speaking of words that stick out (I know you’re googling synecdoche” right now but I’ll go on), don’t start using words in your essay that you’ve never used before. I believe that words like “plethora” and “myriad” occur only in admission essays, never in the wild. And they annoy me, so feel free to say “many” or “a lot” (not “alot”) and write in your own voice, even if it might not be as elevated as you think we want you to be. In the same manner, if you’re writing about your favorite book, it doesn’t have to be Les Miserables; it can be Johnny Tremain or Winnie the Pooh as long as you make a good case for it, but please God not Dr. Seuss. Don’t try to tell me how being childlike is really what we all need. If that were true you wouldn’t be trying to go to college, would you?

Many parents seem to think that if you don’t show yourself off in your essays they won’t do you any good. They are wrong and you should ignore them. I’ve witnessed many perfectly good essays ruined by parents who thought they knew better than college admission officers. Case in point, use of the word “I.” It’s not essential because no matter who or what you write about, you’re writing about yourself. A good profile of an interesting person who influenced you or an experience that happened can rely on your generosity and observation, not on the narcissistic tendency to see yourself in everything. I once read a wonderful essay about a student’s Jewish grandfather–he spent World War II in Shanghai China selling mattresses. It was a powerful profile but his parents stupidly thought that because the writer never mentioned himself it wasn’t good for the application. Luckily for him he was accepted anyway.

Fight the tendency to make everything about you. Again, it’s about you anyway, so give up some of the spotlight and you’ll be seen as a larger person. This is especially true of the “peak experience” essay. If you’ve been lucky enough to travel the world helping people build latrines or schoolhouses, don’t write a solid essay about it and end with “And when I got home I realized how fortunate I am to live in Greenwich or Wilmette or wherever.” You’ve just undercut your whole premise and made the whole trip about your own self and not the need to help others. It makes you sound like a privileged dilettante.

Remember that the “personal essay” isn’t a confessional. I’ve read about students’ suicide attempts, their recovery from various traumatic episodes, and so on. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic, but I’m trying to assess your capability for college work and life, so those aren’t really good topics to expose. Save them for the campus counselor.

I could go on, and I will eventually. Just one more thing for now: Never write about tennis. Oh please, please, never write about tennis. For whatever reason, college application essays about tennis are the most excruciatingly boring and self-absorbed things in the college admission universe. Maybe it’s just me, but any essay that begins “I stared down my opponent over the net as I tossed the ball in the air” inclines me to violence. The same is true for essays about your anterior cruciform ligament or other body parts injured in sports events. I’m sorry you were hurt but I don’t really want to know about it right now. All I’m saying is, think about your reader. Imagine you’re a guest at a party trying not to put your host to sleep.

OK, I’ll really stop for now. If you can, approach your essays with a sense of humor and even a touch of irony. You’ll do yourself a world of good and make people like me less crabby.

About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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5 Responses to The Crabby Counselor Talks About the College Application Essay

  1. Ghita says:

    You are the best. I so enjoy working with you at Chicago Scholars. You are an inspiration to so many.


  2. Zaire says:

    Thanks for this post!
    The essay is the hardest part of the app right now..for me.
    These tips definitely helped.


  3. Stephanie Dupaul says:

    I have to agree about the ACL. I have read COUNTLESS essays about “the night I blew out my knee playing fill-in-the-blank sport.” I’ve heard how it popped, I’ve seen photos from surgery, I’ve learned the different ways to rehab. I’ll trade you two tennis essays for one blown ACL any day.


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