Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gary Canter's College Essay Rant

Essays. Required by almost every college. This fall I suspect many of you will be getting headaches over your college application essays. Some of you may be struggling with choosing where you're going to apply before you start thinking about writing. That's a mistake, because essays tend to be generic - very broad topics which you can use for multiple applications.
Do you know what the most common essay prompt is? Go on, guess. Bet most of you said something like: "Tell us about an experience which shaped you" or
" Discuss a person who was influential in your development".
Those are ones you'll see, but they're not the most common one, which OVER 90% of colleges ask.
Guess again, then scroll down for the answer...
...keep going....
It's: "Subject of your choice"! Go ahead - check on the common application's essay prompts - see #6?
So my strong suggestion to you is: GET STARTED WRITING, and don't wait for someone to tell you the topic or for your list of schools to coalesce (which is a different topic, and email, entirely. Those of you who need some coaching about getting a list of schools finalized should - you're right -
feel free to get in touch with me!)
Every year I get comments and complaints from students suffering from writer's bloc which include:
"What am I supposed to write about?" "Nothing interesting has ever happened to me!"
"This is stupid!"
Well listen up buckos and I'll give you my take on the Great Essay Opportunity.
That's right - Opportunity. Instead of thinking of these essays as annoying inconveniences being imposed on you, think of 'em as one of your best chances to show those bozos in the admissions offices what a huge mistake they'll be making if they have the temerity to overlook you!
Wondering "What do they want me to write?" is exactly the WRONG question to ask yourself.
Asking "What do I want them to know about me?" is the CORRECT way to think about your essays.
Viewed from this perspective, you have THOUSANDS of great stories and vignettes to relate in essay form. Your entire life is the fodder from where you can choose, and if you get beyond the idea that you have to write something that will differentiate you from the crowd, and instead realize that that life of yours HAS ALREADY HAS DIFFERENTIATED YOU FROM THE CROWD, ideas for what to write about should flow more readily!!
College admission folks are less impressed by great accomplishments than they are by your ability to allow them insight in to who you are. Be real. Be honest. Be beguiling. Be confessional. Be manipulative. Be clever by realizing that the one and only and ultimate purpose of your essay is to impart what I call a "moral" to the reader, and that moral is to cause the reader to conclude one (or more) of the following things after they read your essay:
- you're smart - you're funny - you're clever - you write well - you're profound - you're a risk taker - you're a good person - you think deep thoughts - you're ready for college - you learn from experience - you are motivated to succeed - you've overcome obstacles / adversity - you're someone they would like to meet and get to know - you're someone who will be a good addition to their college - you're someone who if given the opportunity will shine at their school, thereby making them look like geniuses for accepting you!
Get the idea? The sole purpose of every essay is to predispose the reader to accept you. That's it, fini, end of story.
I like students to prepare an "arsenal" of THREE or even FOUR essays. Give the colleges an extra essay with your application (if they ask for one give 'em two, if they want two give 'em three...), and have one left over to send in February with your "follow up" package (I'll remind you about this
another time).
Note when you check out the "writing" page on the Common Application (which by now you're all signed up for - if you're not, reread my last rant), you'll see an "Additional Information" section right under the main essay. It says: "Please upload a document here if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.." Think
you want to leave that puppy blank? Think again! Opportunity! For another great essay!
So now let's get going! Far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter where you're applying, or to how many schools. I suggest you have 3 or 4 great essays.
All you need to know to get started are a few simple rules:
Rule #1: Length Essays should be 500 to 750 words. It's hard to keep 'em short (500 words) so don't worry about going a bit longer UNLESS the college's instructions EXPLICITLY SAY "no more than 500 words". This is rare, but if they do, you've got to do some slicing and dicing.
Rule #2: Make your essay like an Altoids. By this I mean your essay should be "Curiously Strong", which means:
a. essays should be WELL-WRITTEN (that's the "strong" part) b. essays should be INTERESTING (that's the "curious" part - your essay should be a page turner).
The difference between a good and a great essay is how interesting it is to read. Many folks' essays, though well written, tend toward the tedious and banal. Avoid that. Take to heart what an admissions director (from Union College in New York) has written:
"I'd rather read an interesting, revealing essay about a student cleaning out his/her locker at the end of junior year, than read an uninspired piece about someone's experience as a senate page in Washington for a summer".
So what should you write about? Lotsa choices. You can begin working on one of the essay prompts on the common application, which requires you to answer ONE of them (note bene that some colleges assign a second essay through their SUPPLEMENT to the common app):
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4. Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.
Want more ideas? Here are the four broad topics I suggest that you write about (remember that Option #6, "Your Choice", means just that!):
a. an ACTIVITY essay - write about something you do regularly and with passion. This can be sports, music, your job, a volunteer gig, babysitting your little brother, playing video games, etc.
b. an EXPERIENCE essay - tell a good story from somewhere within the richness of your life experiences. It could be something that happened this year, or a dozen years ago. One of the best essays I've read from a few years ago was an experience essay about a seemingly trivial thing which happened when the writer was in 4th grade! Of course, the point of the essay was that it wasn't trivial at all, but had a lasting impact to the writer's
insight and development.
c. a CAREER essay - what do you want to do when you grow up, and why? If unsure, you can write the "clueless" career essay, wherein you talk about how you have MANY interests and you'll be darned if you're ready to select just one at this time.
d. a "WILD CARD" essay: what haven't you told them about, and what do you want them to know about you?
Remember that ALL ESSAYS, regardless of topic, are ABOUT YOU, and are intended to yield one or more of the conclusions or morals I enumerated above. That said, you are by definition the WORLD EXPERT on the subject matter: which is YOU!
Are you not? So what are you waiting for? Go nuts!
Feel free to send me ideas, drafts, versions, whatever and I'll be glad to give you my two cents worth...
From your corresponding corporal, your narrative nabob, your loquacious lexiconographer (ha ha!), your wonked-out wordsmith...
P.S. If any readers are unfamiliar about the for-pay portion of my services please ask me and I'll fill you in. And by all means, pass on these rants, my name and email and phone, to any and all Class of '12 students (and parents) you know who may appreciate them.
P.P.S. If you'd rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.
-- Gary L. Canter College Placement Services 210 St. John Street Portland, Maine 04102 (207) 772-9711
College Placement Services provides high school students and their families assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process.

emptywheel talks grocery checking

Emptywheel, a smart politico I met through dailykos, weighs in on a bloggy flap about the value of workers in markets (actual markets, like supermarkets, not markets in economist-talk) and the markets' motivation for installing self-service kiosks

Gary Canter's resume outline

This resume is not formatted properly. We'll talk about formatting in class.

COLLEGE RESUME TEMPLATE (to include with every college application, to give to your g.c. and to those you're asking for a recommendation, "pen pal letters", college reps and interviewers when you meet them, potential internships & job shadows, scholarship and summer program applications, etc.)

Date Of Birth
School Name                                   
Phone (guidance office)
Guidance Counselor's name

(Intro of a brief personal statement, such as:)

"I am a junior who attends _____________ H.S. graduating in June of 2012...", (mention your major academic interests; majors you are considering; anything else you want to mention in two to four sentences)

Junior Classes: (mid-term grade)            Anticipated Senior Classes
Honors Algebra II (87)                    Pre-Calculus
English 11  (92)                        AP English
Honors Chemistry (85)                    Anatomy and Physiology
AP American History (90)                Government
Holocaust (spring)                    Journalism
Spanish III (88)                        Spanish IV

(after your junior year ends reverse the above list, so that Senior Classes appears in the left hand column and junior classes on the right.

Grades: GPA    SATs (when taken and scores, and when you plan to retake them)
        SAT IIs, ACTs
        Rank in Class
(list what you want to list - if your GPA and test scores are lackluster, leave them out. This is YOUR resume, to do with as you wish!)

Activities: List your significant school and non-school activities. Be sure to include things which have been meaningful to you and that you want the colleges to know about. List in the order of importance to you, and write a brief description (annotation - one to four sentences) for your top two or three activities).

Employment: List work experience from most recent to earliest, titles and brief job description for each, period of employment, name of immediate supervisor. Annotate the major/most significant jobs you've had.

Sports: List teams, years participated, titles and leadership awards, etc. Annotate those which are of greatest importance to you.

Other things: Such as a reading list of recent books which have had an impact on you over the past few years, significant travel, academic courses taken elsewhere, etc.

References: Either list three or four persons and phone numbers who have given you permission to include as a reference; or you can write: "Excellent references provided on request."

Can you think of another category or two to include? It's fine to go to a second or even a third page - print this resume on resume paper, front to back...

Hugh Gallagher's "Wonder Years" College Essay


This essay, by Hugh Gallagher, won first prize in the humor category of the 1990 Scholastic Writing Awards. It appeared in the May issue of  Literary Cavalcade,a magazine of contemporary fiction and student writing published by Scholastic in New York City. Gallagher, who is eighteen, grew up in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and will attend New York Universiy this fall.


    I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

    I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

    Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play blue-grass cello. I was scouted by the Mets. I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I'm bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

    I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don't perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat .400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

    I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick and David Copperfield  in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

    I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four-course meals using only a Mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet. I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

    But I have not yet gone to college.

Gary Canter's "Pen Pal" letter template

EXAMPLE OF PEN PAL LETTER - (could be adapted to send to a criminology, poly sci or pre-law professor, or a field hockey coach)

                                        Joe Beets                                                242 Danforth Street                                            Portland, Maine  04102
                                        DOB:  8/18/83
Caryl Rivers
Boston University
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts  02215

Dear Professor Rivers,

My name is Joe Beets and I live in Portland, Maine. I am in my senior year at Portland High School and I'm in the process of applying to colleges. Boston University is one of my top choices.

I've enclosed a brief resume and a copy of my transcript. (if appropriate, add "and a fact sheet about myself").  I've also asked my high school English teacher, Mr/Ms _______ (or  another teacher, or field hockey coach, etc) to send a letter of support on my behalf, which you will receive in the near future.  I'm very interested in studying communications at Boston University, and in becoming involved with the journalism program.

Say two or three sentences about your interest in communications/journalism. Where it came from, what experiences you have had, etc.

The purpose of this letter, besides introducing myself to you, is to request that you send me information about B.U.'s journalism program.  I'd also like to ask your opinion of whether you think I'd be a good addition to the journalism program? Finally, because I'm aware of how difficult it is to gain entry, I'd greatly appreciate any suggestions you may have for me to increase my chances of being accepted to Boston University (I already know about and am working on keeping my grades high!)

I'm hoping to visit B.U. this fall. May I call to arrange to meet with you at that time? Perhaps you could suggest a class I may attend, or forward me the name and phone/email of one of your students whom I may correspond with.

Thank you very much for your time and your consideration.


Joe Beets