Teaching College Application Essay Writing

'Tis the season for applying to college, and everyone and his mother have got the "How Do I Write My Application Essay Blues."

The killer personal statement, now a hot commodity, may be the most popular literary genre on our virtual shelves, at least between July and November of every year. The genre long ago spawned dozens of how-to guides, but our obsession has only recently seeped into popular culture, with sightings in the movies (Admission, Flight) and this fall, it's the subject of a major novel, Lacy Crawford's Early Decision, written by former essay coach to the well-to-do.

This has also been a banner year for the essay because of big changes to the Common Application and the publicity that ignited -- some negative, some positive (see my responses to both here). Whether good or bad, the focus on all of it only reinforces How Much the Essay Matters.

Adding to the buzz has been the increasingly crowded Twitterverse, the place where everyone -- frustrated students, university admissions departments, officials at the Common Application -- goes to kvetch, ask questions, and/or to confess.

My own confessions are longer than 140 characters.

Confession No. 1. No one has ever asked me to write an essay for her child. Nor has anyone even hinted that this is what she wanted. The students I work with want to write their own essays, and parents often want, not a ghostwriter, but a buffer, someone outside the family to impose some structure and discipline on the process of getting the essays done. You may have heard: children-on-the-verge-of-adulthood usually don't want to spend any more time with their parents than necessary, especially when there is a risk of "nagging."

Parents often say to me, "There is absolutely no way I can work with my son/daughter on these essays." What follows is one of these lines: "Our relationship is frayed enough. This would be impossible." Or -- a brighter narrative: "My son and I have a great relationship, and I don't want to ruin it."

But I get plenty of other inquiries: parents whose first language isn't English and those who can tell that the child's essay isn't up to snuff but don't know how to tell them to fix it. Said one mother: "My son's English teacher said his essay is fine, but I know it's not."

Confession No 2. I'm not ashamed of what I do. There are critiques of essay coaches from admissions officers, guidance counselors, purists (of many stripes), and those who aren't familiar with what some of us do.

Coaches come in all shapes and sizes, and some of us wear a number of hats, from volunteers at public schools and community centers (take a look at this terrific application bootcamp program in Chicago) to those who are handmaidens of the rich. Main character Ann, the high-end coach in Lacy Crawford's novel, does pro-bono work on Saturdays, and charges her other clients $5000 for a consulting package. Like some psychotherapists (though few doctors, lawyers, or accountants), I have a sliding scale.

Confession No. 3. I wasn't surprised to hear on This American Life that only one in every 20 application essays the admissions officer reads at Georgia Tech is any good. A fair number of my clients are weak writers -- at least when they start out. I put them through paces. I make them rewrite many times. I force them to think - and sometimes realize that I'm the first person who has asked this of them. I suggest things to read, and have occasionally bestowed gifts: a copy of The New Yorker for a bright girl who had never heard of it and needed writing help, and multiple copies of Sin and Syntax, a grammar and usage book that is a delight to read.

The vast majority of students I work with have never had any writing instruction beyond what happens in a group, and it shows. Critical thinking is essential to good writing. This too is an alien concept to many students.

But I've also worked with top student writers at top schools, public and private, including students who edit and write for the school newspaper and literary magazine. They may be great at writing movie reviews for the paper or analyzing poems for English class, but they're sometimes stumped on how to write college application essays, because there is nothing they've ever written to prepare them for this genre -- and its many offshoots among the dozens of supplementary essays that come up. Of course they have teachers and guidance counselors who can and do help. For many that is sufficient. For others, who might have eight or ten essays, there might not be a teacher available.

I know that there are dozens of books to read on the subject, filled with wise and sometimes conflicting advice from former deans of admission, such as, "Be yourself; Don't show your essay to your parents, your friends, or a coach, but only to a teacher; If your Mom is an English teacher, ask her; Read your essay aloud to a friend, etc."

My experience is that most students don't read these books; their mothers might, if they're bookish and ambitious. The kids I see aren't working with their mothers, but there must be plenty of students who are, and plenty who do the essays on their own, and have no problem with the command: Just be yourself. I read their joyful tweets announcing that they've finished their essays.

Confession No. 4. I have no problem admitting that having an essay coach gives the student an advantage. So does having parents who are educated and affluent; so does attending private school, being tutored, taking music lessons, going to specialized summer camps, being a star athlete, or coming from a legacy family. Having parents who are writers or editors can be a huge advantage in writing the essay. A top student in rural Idaho applying to Harvard might have a geographic advantage.

And some in this high-stakes competition will insist that it's a big advantage to be a poor minority student, as long as you're not Asian. In Early Decision, there's a wealthy, bitter couple with a disappointing son who give voice to the view that if only their son were "an exotic person with no money," he'd be an Ivy League shoo-in.

Recently, a Chinese-born student, adopted by a white American family, wrote and asked me if she should conceal the fact that she's Chinese on her Common Application, since her guidance counselor told her that being Chinese would be her "downfall" in applying to college. (I suggested that Be yourself might be a better way to go, and perhaps to find a place somewhere in the application to mention her history.)

I'm not sure there's one moral to all of these stories, one blanket takeaway -- except what money managers always tell their clients: Diversify. Don't put all your money in stocks even though you might get the highest returns: you might also lose big.

Don't put all your eggs in one college basket. Whether you're a parent or a student, don't fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one college or one group of colleges where you/your child will be happy.

Confession No. 5. These days, my favorite Twitter hashtag is #CommonApp, and I spend more time than I should reading college essay forums. My favorite recent tweet, from a student at Tufts: "My college wants to publish my Common App essay in an admissions magazine. I'm in actual tears. I'm crying."

And my favorite forum exchange is a conversation from last year about the Common App essay: A student writes: "its due in like 2 weeks and I have zero idea what to write...I spent most of my time on the internet watching youtubes, browsing forums, so my life is not that interesting to write about..." A student answers: "if you think your life isn't interesting it wouldn't be that hard to make something up if you're a good writer."

Please visit my website and blog at Don't Sweat the Essay, for advice, news, and occasional gossip.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, journalist, coach and editor of two anthologies. She's taught writing for more than 20 years at major colleges and universities, and runs Don't Sweat the Essay.

Follow Elizabeth Benedict on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ElizBenedict

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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