The following piece is by Mr. Tom Bojko, Senior College Counselor at BASIS Independent Silicon Valley.
Often, when I read the first draft of an application essay a deep unease overcomes me. In a word, the essay feels contrived. Often, horribly so.
When I ask the applicant about this, the response is invariably one, some or all of the following:
- But it worked for someone else
- But I need to have a hook or a way of catching the reader's attention
- But this is what my consultant/a certain book/blog/aunt/cousin told me I have to do
- But if I don't do this, I won't stand out
Never does the applicant say, “This is how I really see myself.”
That’s a shame. It’s as if applicants are made to feel that they must somehow fake their way into college, or wear a mask for the admissions offices. Rarely are they allowed the confidence to represent themselves in honest, straightforward ways.
One obsession that I notice being particularly prevalent is some variation on the following idea, which I copied from a blog of “experts”:
You need a killer first sentence. Your first sentence needs to draw the reader in, and make him or her want to keep reading. Grab the reader with your first sentence!
Good grief. If there is a better way to induce writer’s block in an anxious teen I’ve yet to hear it. Admissions officers are paid to read essays, not the first sentences of essays. They are assessing applicants—human beings—not the first sentence of one component of a wide-ranging application. Do they love to read straightforward, sometimes even elegant or vivid sentences? Sure—who doesn’t? Are they so simple-minded or burnt out that they need to be hooked by the first sentence? Let’s hope not.
Also worrisome is the response: “but this way of writing an essay worked for someone else.”
No, it didn’t. The other person’s application worked. In fact, how is anyone to know if that application didn’t “work” in spite of the contrived essay or gratuitous opening sentence? How is one to know that perhaps an application that was denied “worked” perfectly well but the admissions committee made an arbitrary decision to deny one applicant and admit another (See previous post on Subjectivity in Admissions)? We had an example of just this situation this year—an admissions officer even called the school and confessed that the decision couldn’t be defended on logical grounds (Again, see Subjectivity).
Rather than training our students to live in fear of doing something wrong, or of turning their backs on the nonsense that somehow passes for the “right” advice (by seemingly everyone except actual admissions officers…), why not encourage them to sit down with a prompt and answer it honestly, simply, and directly?
In fact, let’s look at one of the prompts from the Common Application:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? What is an admissions office looking for in this prompt? A clear explanation of the event, yes, but, more importantly, a clear understanding of the applicant’s values and how the applicant puts these values into action. That’s it. As for the mechanics of the essay, the admissions officers want to read enough of the situation to grasp the context, gain a clear understanding of the thought process behind the applicant’s actions and, finally, the outcome of the applicant’s actions.
The student writing the essay need look only at his or her own life for the answer—not to a book, blog, brainy cousin or current student at a famous college.
On that note, a few words on tutors or consultants for college essays. In a nutshell, we strongly discourage their use. Nonetheless, if you insist on using one please bear in mind that your student will quickly find him or herself caught in the middle of two (or, unfortunately, sometimes more) adults who are giving conflicting advice or commentary. I have even been told than an essay was good because the parents paid an expensive consultant to work on it. To be very honest, it was a horrifically trite essay—but who am I to argue with an expensive consultant who must have been laughing all the way to the bank?
Why are we in the College Counseling office so confident that we are better than consultants? It’s simple: essay consultants are generally paid to deliver a product that appears to be a “college essay” whereas we labor to help our students gain the confidence to reveal their uniqueness in the best possible way to an admissions committee, not write a “college essay”. We do not believe there is a model essay to strive for, a “correct” method to follow (except to revise, revise, revise…) nor do we want students seeking our approval or that of anyone else.
Instead, we guide them into a state of mind that gives them confidence in their own ideas. When a draft of an essay is done, we are happy to make comments on it and these usually take the form of questions, the most common of which are: What do you want the reader to know about you after reading this essay? Why? Does this information add to the application overall? How so? Is this the best use of the opportunity an essay offers? This is something of…Socratic College Counseling and if any instructional method has withstood the test of time, fad and opportunism, the Socratic Method is it. We fully embrace it because it is the most effective way of guiding our students to understand and think for themselves.
At BISV, we spend loads of time discussing ideas with the seniors, as well as the juniors starting in January. It is arguably the most enjoyable part of college counseling. We do not tell our students what they should believe or say to others but, instead, we do try to elicit ideas and stories they feel good about telling and that would enlighten an admissions officer. We occasionally save some students from themselves—admittedly, some do have ideas that are just not appropriate for college essays—but this is usually because they lack confidence and are being led to rely on the bad or irrelevant advice of others.
We also spend loads of time interacting with the essay drafts our students write. We do not write for them, force our opinions on them or adhere to fixed rules about what makes an essay successful or that most ambiguous of words, “good.” Instead, we labor to help our students breathe their own lives into their essays and throughout their applications. This—not a mere hook—is what admissions officers are looking for.
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At BASIS Independent Silicon Valley, we offer a strategic senior year college counseling course that readies students for the college application process. If you'd like to learn more about what makes this comprehensive course a hallmark of our successful college application rates, as well as hear from our expert counselors, like Mr. Bojko, join us for our College Counseling event on December 13 at 6:30 PM. Register now!