THE COLLEGE APPLICATON ESSAY
What follows are an insider’s comments on what pleases/displeases college admissions officers in your admissions
essays. These quotes are excerpted from a November 6, 1999 New York Times article, "The ------- That Changed
My Life" by Glenn C. Altschuler, who has been serving on admissions committees for ten years. In the interests
of better essay writing while providing Mr. Altschuler and his colleagues with more "enjoyable" reading
material, we are delighted to provide his insights.
"*Essays about national, global and cosmic issues seem as if they have been written by Applicant Anonymous. If what you know about the crises in East Timor comes from Time magazine or from Tom Brokaw, you will probably conclude, as have thousands of other applicants who have written on the same topic, that ethnic and religious repression are reprehensible and peace desirable. And you’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.
*Write about your world and your experiences. Seventeen-year-olds inhabit a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges and universities are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, the first trip to the museum without Mom and Dad, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values and passions.
*Describe. Don’t characterize. Eliminate all adjectives and adverbs. "The Coach Who Changed My Life" may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In "Ode to Dad," a Cornell applicant explained his father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.
*Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, you will impress no one while you hijack the personal essay to a place you have never been. This year, a young woman concluded an essay about her embarrassment over her parents’ Old World values and foreign accents, her desire for the approval of her peers and a tear-filled confrontation with her father by invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson. We never got a glimpse of the aftermath of "The Conversation That Changed My Life."
*Academics tend to see through a glass darkly. They value ambiguity, uncertainty and irony. For these reasons, and not because they have an anti-religious agenda, selection committees invariably prefer "How I Lost My Faith" to "God is the Center of My Life." But above all, writers should establish distance from their subjects, including themselves. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the clichéd moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that coaches are often wrong or a little crazy, that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, "Riding the Pine," found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s O.K. to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.
*Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise: the voice you find may be your own."
Here's some advice to parents from the July 18, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Admissions officials say that overly involved parents are more likely to hurt rather than help students' application bids. After all, parents cannot change the raw academic data, such as grades and SAT scores, or teacher recommendations, says Thomas H. Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College. But they can sap all the originality and spontaneity out of their kids' essays, he says. Parents 'end up subverting the application,' he adds, 'because they have the students play it safe.' If this happens, 'students end up losing their own voice.' And that voice can sometimes greatly influence an admissions decision. 'We're looking at far more intangible than tangible qualities,' Mr. Parker says. 'At a certain point everyone has very high scores and grades. That's when you start to look for evidence of passion, a real commitment to the academic field, and originality. If you're reading an uninspiring essay, it may be because parents have edited it to death.'"