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...
Gary
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.

1 comment:

  1. The college essay provides a good opportunity to leave a long-lasting impression on the reader, apart from the interview and an efficient way to let the people in the admission know you closely. A person they like and remember through the college essay is most likely to be selected.
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