High School 2 College

September 15, 2021

The Worst Common App Essay

You might not be able to identify what makes a great singer great, but you know an awful singer when you hear one. It’s hard to explain what makes a great essay great, but when I read a dreadful essay, I know it.

Every year, I write about 30 college application essays even though I graduated from college 40 years ago. I should say that I don’t exactly write them, but I do help high school seniors come up with topics for their essays and then help those kids to polish their essays after the student finishes saying what she wants to say. I can (and will) tell you what sort of topics are real winners, essays that say something meaningful and true about a student and presents that student in a thoughtful, charming, appealing way. But first I need to warn you about dreadful essays.

What makes a really terrible essay terrible?

The worst essays come from senior English class. I’m an English teacher, so I can tell you with confidence that English teachers aren’t always great writers themselves. Has your English teacher written and published a book or even an article? Has she won any writing awards? Furthermore, Your high school English teachers hasn’t known you, their student, for more than a month or so, so why are you relying on his advice and guidance when it comes to writing a superior college application essay? English class essays often reflect the advice of someone who wrote an article on “How to Write a College Essay” 10 years ago. English class essays are often boilerplate, hackneyed, dry, uninspired. English class essays could often describe you and half a dozen other kids in your school or your sport or your club with the same overused phrases. [Yawn.]

Awful essays often reflect too much interference by parents. When students write about how they’ve conquered their fear (or special ed issue or their shyness or their academic challenges or their ADD) and show you that they are great now and now they can conquer life in the same way that they’ve conquered their whatever, I know a parent has taken over. When kids say, “I trembled in fear” instead of “I thought the teacher might actually bite my head off,” I know a parent has taken over. And if I know when a parent has taken over an essay, so do admission counselors. It’s not considered cheating for a parent or teacher or tutor to review an essay for grammar and punctuation and spelling or even word choice, but the essay topic and the essay language still has to retain the voice of a 17-year old, not a 45-year old who wants the prospective college to see their student as a shining star, just as that parent does. Parents, don’t meddle with your kids’ essays. It makes it seem as if you don’t trust your student to speak for himself.

Truly terrible essays explain how you, the 17-year-old student, have life figured out. When I finished first grade, I asked my mother why I had to go to second grade since I already knew how to read and write. Any high school kid knows that you’re not done learning at age seven. And any adult knows that you haven’t understood everything there is to know about life or even about yourself at 17. When kids write that they tried to make the team but failed, and, on the verge of quitting, decided to try once again and then made the team, that’s nice, but they can’t say, “And now I understand perserverance.” When kids write that they lost the big game but “Now I understand that it’s all about teamwork,” they look juvenile. When kids write that their parents sent them to Nicaragua for two weeks to build houses and “Now I understand poverty,” no you don’t. All you understand is that your parents could afford to send you to Nicaragua for two weeks and not everyone lives in your suburban town. You look spoiled and naive to say otherwise. It’s much more sincerely humble to write that you are beginning to understand something specific about yourself, but that you have a lot more to learn, and in part that’s what you hope to do in college.

The worst essays spend four paragraphs giving the history of your medical issue or insecurity or academic challenge and finally mention where you are now in the last paragraph or two.

Nasty essays criticize others, even if they deserve it. No college wants to hear that you got a 70 in Italian or Math because you had an incompetent teacher. No one wants to read that if your parents hadn’t moved, you’d be an A+ student. No one (except your mom) cares that you were on your way to gymnastic stardom until you dislocated your shoulder. And definitely no one believes that you would have done something meaningful and important with your life – but for Covid. Every student was impacted by Covid. Every sports team had cancelled games. Every club closed. Every science research project was postponed. But no one wants to hear that you couldn’t run or play ball or dance or join a club or make a meaningful contribution because of Covid. What COULD you do? Did you tutor neighborhood children? Did you sew masks when no one could get PPE? Did you design science experiments with materials kids had at home to help your elementary school teacher? Did you teach a senior citizen how to FaceTime with his grandchildren? It’s no one’s fault that you didn’t live up to your own potential – but you could write about what you might do differently next time.

So what SHOULD you write about?

If you’re on a team, what makes you different from the student next to you? It could be something that everyone knows about you, like you’re the tallest kid in your grade or you’re addicted to chocolate or you love country western music or classic cars. It could also be something that no one knows about you, like you love to clean bathrooms because of how sparkly they look when you finish (that was me growing up) or why you prefer to visit with your grandma in an old age home than visit your three-year-old cousin or why you’ve always hated the color blue.

And how should you start an essay? Just start. You can add an introduction and conclusion later. You can fix the spelling and grammar later. You can chose more expressive verbs and adjectives later. You can rearrange the sentences later. I can edit nearly anything, but I can’t edit nothing. So put something down on paper. Start several essays. When you find a topic you can’t stop writing about, you’ve found a winner. Try writing it as a letter to a friend, at least temporarily. Try writing it as a diary entry for now.

Just start writing. You’ll evenutally need an essay between 500 – 650 words, about a page to a page and a half. But for goodness sake, please don’t write about how your coach is such an inspiring guy because he convinced you to try out for the team once again before his annual trip to Nicaragua!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 8, 2013

Major Changes in Common App Coming This Summer: What To Do Now To Prepare

The makers of the Common Application, known familiarly as “the Common App,” last week announced big changes that will first affect current high school juniors, and then – at least until the Committee gets the urge to tweak it again – all younger students in turn.

For those who are unfamiliar with the college application “game” (and by “game,” I mean something akin to medieval torture), the Common App was designed to allow applicants to fill in their basic information (name, address, interests, grades, scores) once rather than over and over for each college application.  Moreover, the Common App allows the student to write one mighty, well-crafted, heavily reviewed and edited masterpiece essay that all schools (at least all schools that accept the Common App) will accept.  It should have been a boon to those applying to many colleges, as most students now do.  (My older son applied to 12 colleges; my younger son applied to 14!)  Sadly, while it is a great help to guidance counselors who used to have to mail hard copies of transcripts and recommendations to all those colleges, the Common App has not been much help to the average bedraggled college applicant.

Here’s what went wrong with the Common App:  Each college, in its quest to appear unique, takes advantage of the opportunity to require a supplement, which includes questions on legacy (family members who attended that college), major, and, of course, another essay or two – or three.  These supplements, over the past few years, have gotten longer and more complicated, and have substantially eroded any benefit the common app had to high school kids.

So what are these big changes?

1.  The activity essay is gone.  Too bad.  I rather liked that one.  It asked students to expand upon a particular after-school activity that they do and explain why it is important to them in under 150 words.  Gone.

2.  The three submission areas – application, supplement, and fee – have been consolidated into two submissions, with the supplement now part of the application.  Sort of (read on).

3.  The supplement ESSAYS are now a distinct submission, which means you can submit your application now and finish the essays later, as long as the whole thing is done before the deadline.  Sort of cancels the benefit of combining three submissions into two, doesn’t it?  We’re now back to three submissions  for each college, and three chances to fail to complete your application by only submitting one or two of the three required submissions.

4.  Download-able, paper versions of the forms have been eliminated.  I’ve always advised students to print out a blank copy of the Common App and complete that in pencil before completing the form online.  The Common App times out if you take too long between answers.  So while you look up your guidance counselor’s fax number or while you call your dad at work to find out what year he graduated from college, you’re timed out.  You did hit “save,” right?  Well, maybe it saved, and maybe it didn’t.  The best strategy is to fill out the application hard copy, and then you can type in your answers all at once.

TIP:  Print out a hard copy of the application NOW before they delete it this summer.  It will be a little different from the version you fill out online, but the questions will be the same.

5.  You can no longer upload the Common App main essay.  You can either type it directly onto the form (not a good idea – too easy to overlook a typo), or you can select, save, and paste (much safer).  Still, it’s an annoying extra step.

6.  The Common App essay topics have changed drastically.  There is no longer a “topic of your choice” choice.  There are only five choices (click here and scroll down), and you have to pick one.

TIP:  It may seem early to you, but there’s no harm in starting to think about the topics NOW.  You might try writing an essay for each topic, or at least two or three.  Write a few essays and put them aside for a month or two.  Coming at them after a break will give you a fresh perspective.  Are they still interesting and relevant?  Would your best friend’s mom or your aunt find it interesting?  Keep thinking, and you’ll be ready to tackle the essay in earnest over the summer.

7.  The length of the Common App essay has changed.  For many years, it was a maximum of 500 words.  Three or four years ago, they changed it to a minimum of 250 words with no upper limit.  Bad idea.  The upper limit of 500 words came back quickly.  The new limit will be a minimum of 250 words and a new upper limit of 650 words.  650 is a maximum, not a suggested target.  A 500-word essay might fit your needs better.  Wordier is not necessarily smarter or more clever or more engaging. And they will cut you off at 650.  Not 651.  You don’t want them to think you don’t know how to follow directions, do you?

8.  A new optional “additional information” essay has been added.  Some colleges used to include this in their supplement, but it will now be part of the standard Common App.  If you truly have nothing else to say, don’t feel you need to fill this section up with trivial information.  But if you need to explain bad grades (did you move from town to town?) or excessive absences (did you have to take care of an ailing parent?) or a lack of activities (were you required to babysit younger siblings so your parents could work?), use this space to explain what might look like a serious negative on your application.

9.  The arts supplement will be hosted off-site, and the athletic supplement will be discontinued.

10.  You will be able to edit your application (but not the essay) after your first submission.  So, if you notice you made a mistake after you submit one application, you can correct it before the next application.  HOORAY!  The inability to correct a mistake has always been my primary objection to the Common App.  Can I say it again?  HOORAY!!

There are other minor changes, but these are the big changes that were announced recently.

If you need help on the applications or essays over the summer or in the fall, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

Blog at WordPress.com.

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