Ironically, several trends in high school English composition work against one another when a student confronts the college application essay. Often, high school students have experienced three years during which their teachers usually told them to write analytically, in the third person, about literature, science, and history. In practically every instance, students assume that it’s important to leave egos behind in order to find an objectifying voice for their writing. Then, just when you thought it was safe to wade into the water of essay writing…a student comes face to face with the college essay prompt, which in one way or another asks that student to toot his or her own horn with clarity and precision, all the while maintaining a balance between bragging on the one hand, and honest portrayal of facts on the other. No wonder students eschew college application essay trials! Coming from a peer-group society where standing out from the crowd can elicit the ire of others, students find it hard to swim upstream against the flow, so to speak. That spells trouble for college application completion.
According to a 2009 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 26 percent of admissions offices deemed the essay to be of “considerable importance” in deciding who is admitted. By contrast, in 1993, only 14 percent gave the essay such priority. We can only assume that this percentage has inched upward over the past two admissions cycles, and that the glut of applications from otherwise “comparable,” statistically similar students more than every before makes the well-written essay an essential piece of the application. What’s a kid to do?
Adult admonitions to the teen writer, like “Be yourself!” or “Let it all out” are of minimal help. In the end, the high school writer learns that the most effective essay tells a personal story that conveys sense and sensibility, engagement in life and ideas, and a developing maturity which recognizes how the boundaries of learning can and will expand almost exponentially. The famous “hook” that is meant to intrigue the admissions officer who is reading your application comes in the form of an easy-to-read narrative, one that may flow as smoothly as a personal conversation in which the student comfortably conveys personal engagement and passion.
In the years that I have been assisting college-bound students with their essays, my principal tool is an interview-style dialogue with the applicant. From it we both glean the very facts, details, and emotion that will make that essay read well–a cut above the rest. Are you ready?