As I mentioned on #engchat this past Monday, my father is a retired college professor. He taught at Bryn Mawr College, and also read applications for admission there (they rotated faculty into the process each year).
Since he retired, he has been coming to SLA every fall to meet with seniors one-on-one and workshop their college essays. This has been a great resource for the students, and also for us teachers — he gives each of them 20-30 minutes of his undivided attention, time that’s hard to carve out of a regular teaching schedule.
He and I have talked plenty about what makes a good essay. Sometimes, to help drive the point home with students, we flip the focus and talk about what makes a bad one. One year we actually gave a joint presentation to rising seniors about college essays, and came up with the following list of Yellow, Red, and Green Flags for essay topics:
- How you’re so awesome. How did you get that way? Your essay should make you look awesome without just saying it.
- Your High School Drama. Because it makes you look like high school is your whole life, instead of thinking about college.
- Your Travel Journal. It can be done well, but you have to show what YOU gained from the experience, not just how cool the places you visited were.
- Religious or Philosophical Arguments. Figured out the meaning of life? Great. But don’t preach to the person who’s reading your essay.
- Quoting famous people. Martin Luther King once said… that students should come up with their OWN brilliant words!
- Making fun of the prompt. You can put a little humor in the essay, but don’t try to turn it into a satire, or be cynical – colleges won’t want you on their campus.
- Your Excuses. There may be very good reasons that you didn’t perform as well as you should have in high school – but this should be coming from your advisor. Stay positive in your own essay.
- Your Illegal Behavior. Even if you got caught, got punished and learned from the experience… colleges don’t want trouble.
- Hot-Button Topics. People have strong feelings about topics like abortion, terrorism, gun control, police, etc… no matter what you write, you may offend the reader of your essay.
And a few Green Flags:
- Stories outside of high school. Show that you’re engaged with the larger world!
- Show how you’ve grown. You may be awesome now, but what key life experience, mentor, or idea did you have which helped you get there?
- Specific personal details. Your essay should be so specific that there is no WAY it could belong to anybody else.
He also shared his perspective as a former admissions worker, which was eye-opening for the students… he described having 40 applications to read in a day, and what it feels like when essay #38 has spelling errors. On the flip side, he noted that a powerful essay makes him want to go to bat for a candidate.
What other do’s or don’ts do you share with your students? What do you think sticks?
Slideshow of those points: