Good Students, Bad Essays

The student who wrote, “I’m not a pre-Madonna,” in her college application essay provided a good laugh to the admissions officers who read her application, as well as to a crowd of college counselors attending a session titled “Why Good Students Write Bad Essays” at a National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference.

You might think that students who earn excellent grades and score well on standardized tests would have no trouble writing an effective college application essay, but these high achievers often struggle with their essays.

Part of the problem is that they get mixed messages. Writing an analytical essay for your history teacher requires facts, complexity and proper grammar. Students are often taught a five paragraph method for writing an analytical essay that focuses on introducing a thesis, supporting it with examples, and providing smooth transitions. That model works well for an analytical essay, but not for the kind of reflective, personal essay you need to write for college applications. No wonder students are confused.

Many students see the essay as their one chance to “wow” admissions officers and stand out in a very competitive applicant pool. For high-achieving students who have always been able to follow directions, work hard and get the results they wanted, this may be the first time they can’t control the outcome.

The stakes feel so high that it’s easy to be paralyzed by performance pressure. If the essay doesn’t come easily, the anxiety is intensified, making it even more difficult to think clearly about what to write. Students need to know that the application essay is designed to be challenging, and most of their peers are also struggling with it.

For this generation, reflective time has been rare. From an early age, kids have schedules packed with organized activities. In high school, many students have AP classes with many hours of homework, sports practice, community service, SAT preparation, and jobs. If your life is so programmed that you’ve never had time to stop and think about who you are apart from all of your activities, it’s not easy to shift into that mode, especially under pressure.

There isn’t one right answer to an application essay prompt. That can be frustrating, but also liberating. There are many ways to write a great essay, and you only need to find one that works for you.

Admissions officers have their own preferences and personality quirks, but they enjoy working with students. That’s why they work in admissions. It’s certainly not for the huge paycheck. So you can assume that the reader starts out wanting to like you and your essay. Admissions officers understand that at age 18, you haven’t solved life’s mysteries.

The best essays convey intellectual passion and insight, while also being personal. Give the reader a reason to want you to be part of this college community. Don’t try to describe your entire life in 500 words. Think of the essay as a snapshot, and focus on one thing.

You don’t need the usual introductory paragraph. Students often write an introduction stating a thesis, like they would for a history paper. There’s no need to state a thesis. You do want to have a point, but it can be implied. The first paragraph can often be cut, so the reader gets to the more interesting part faster.

Your tone should be honest, conversational and vivid. This isn’t the time for formal academic prose. You don’t need to prove you know big words. Avoid overly complex construction. An admissions officer who has stacks of applications to read every day will appreciate an essay that is compelling and easy to read.

Finally, think about what you want the reader to learn about you. What do you want her to remember about you?

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