College Essay Advice Gone Wrong

College Essay Advice Gone Wrong

Tyler Sant
Director of College Counseling
Holy Innocents' Episcopal School

Recently the New York Times published an article titled “How to Write a Good College Application Essay.”  The article would have been better titled “Confusing, Out-of-Context Tips for Writing a Disjointed and Inauthentic College Essay.” 

College admission is confusing.  It’s secretive.  Few people get to see the inner workings of how an admission decision is made.  And not surprisingly when things are confusing and secretive, presumably well-meaning, so-called experts emerge to crack the code for the unwashed masses. 

Janet Morrissey’s collection of advice (none of which comes from current college admission officers, but instead from private essay coaches and college consultants) offers a misleading antidote.  It is presented as a how-to for writing a “good” essay that could “mean the difference between getting accepted – or rejected – by the school of your choice.”  But no pressure, right?  

What is that advice, exactly?  Well, in sum, it is to tell a passionate and entertaining story that showcases your character, while emphasizing the volunteer work you’ve done in your prospective field, highlighting your internships and lab work, and also explaining knowledgeably and passionately why you want to study at one particular college.  What 18-year old can live up to all that?  It’s like reading pseudo-science health advice: you wonder how you’ll have room for all that coconut oil and Himalayan sea salt when you’re so stuffed with kale smoothies and activated charcoal.  And how will you ever make time for that coffee enema? 

The last time I saw this article’s brand of college essay advice, it was delivered as humor.  There’s a comic strip that shows a student sitting at his guidance counselor’s desk.  The quote below the image reads: “I want to show colleges I’m well-rounded, so I wrote a poem in Spanish about how chess club has made me a better quarterback.”  It’s funny because it’s ridiculous.  But it’s basically Morrissey’s advice.  Her comic strip version would read “I wrote a compelling story about my character, channeled through a synopsis on the nonprofit I started while on lunch break from my research post, which not-so-subtly demonstrates why Princeton is the perfect place for me to continue these endeavors.” 

Here’s the thing.  Taken individually, each piece of advice in Morrissey’s article could be helpful.  But context is key.  Write a compelling story that demonstrates your character?  OK – good idea!  Does it also need to cover your community service, your lab research (which hardly any kid actually has), and your prospective major?  No.  Ironically enough, the first advice paragraph specifically says you shouldn’t regurgitate your resume.  But the next three paragraphs suggest you should. 

Or how about the suggestion to play up your fit at a specific college?  Not a bad idea…when the college asks for that.  Many colleges require a specific supplemental essay response answering, essentially, “Why do you want to go here?”  Great – tell them why!  But PLEASE don’t write your main college essay about one specific college.  Especially if you’re going to use the same essay to apply to more than just that one school.  That’s the beauty of the Common App, after all – you can use it for multiple universities.  But that goes sadly wrong when you write your Common App essay for Duke and disregard that you’re applying elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure UNC-Chapel Hill doesn’t want to read that essay about how badly you want to go to their Tobacco Road rival.   

Want some real advice?  Write an essay that feels true to you.  Haven’t started a dentistry non-profit that offers care to underserved populations and just so happens to dovetail nicely with your interest in pre-dental studies?  Guess what: hardly any other teenager has either. 

In fact, in my experience reading college applications at a highly selective institution, the best essays are often those that ignore the type of advice in this article.  Do not write what you think will look impressive or get you kudos with the admission committee.  Write what you actually care about.  Take a small thing – a moment, an object, a person, a memory, a favorite book, whatever – and use it as a vehicle to tell a bigger story about yourself. 

I’ve read a great essay about a pair of socks.  Or a morning routine.  Or a special relationship with a sibling.  An essay about Costco was good enough for five of the Ivies and Stanford.  Of course these essays weren’t just about socks or routines or siblings or big-box stores.  They leveraged something simple and personal to point to other truths about the applicants.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t write an essay about some hugely impressive thing you’ve done; I’m saying you don’t need to have accomplished hugely impressive things to write a remarkable essay.  

You will not solve the great global problems of our time in these 650 words.  And no, you shouldn’t use much slang or any emojis.  But your writing shouldn’t feel stiff or unnatural, either.  This is, after all, the only place in the application where you get to choose how you express your voice.  Do not waste that opportunity writing about some half-baked service project you had no emotional connection to but signed up for because someone said it would make for a good college essay.  When it’s not meaningful to the author, a topic reads as canned, inauthentic, or stale no matter how impressive it may seem on the surface.  

Oh, and don’t get me started on the article’s only attached image being a picture of Harvard’s admission office. 

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