The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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The Face of Fear
- Length: 972 words (2.8 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
The Face of Fear
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, '...I can take the next thing that comes along.'...You must do the thing you think you cannot do (Eleanor Roosevelt)." Every time I read these words, I am able to see the truth in them. College to me is the next step that I must take in life. Although this next step comes with much trepidation and apprehension, it is a necessary step that I must take to forever better and prepare myself for the life that I wish to lead. State University would be one of the best institutions for this, just as the choice of high school I made four years ago, Good Counsel, was the next step for me then. During high school, I have grown and changed through not only the education I have gained, but also through the activities I participated in. I have gained a lot of strengths from my time spent in high school. Although every weakness has not been erased, the next step in life will ease their numbers even more.
Over the four years that I have spent at Good Counsel, I became part of many activities. Each helping me evolve as a person and become stronger yet. Simple lists could be made of every activity that I have ever been involved in but it could never express to a person what I have learned and how it helped me to grow. Every environmental club, science club, political science club, service work, and S.A.D.D. club I was part of had a very special message to deliver to me. Whether the message was one of responsibility, or a life lesson, I grew from it. The Political Science club opened me to many new experiences. It allowed me the chance to attend the Model U.N., where I was asked to address today's top world issues. This club was very beneficial to me because I was exposed to topics and ideas that I had not previously been able to discuss or learn about in a classroom situation. The science club allowed for me to experience extra educational situations as well. I took part in a hovercraft competition, which was very educational while also allowing me the chance to work with others for a common goal.
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I have also participated in many other school activities, but I feel that my service work done for the community was most beneficial. Over the past four years I have completed about fifty hours of community service at my church as well as service done for my school. I have served at many school functions, such as charity dinners for the homeless. My work at my church allowed me the chance to give back to the community from which I derived so much. I did many odd jobs around the church such as painting, basic repair jobs, cleaning the churchyard, and organizing the interior of the church and rectory.
From every experience I grow, and from every growth I derive new strengths. As a student I have several strengths that will help me in the future as I enter college. With respect to my schoolwork I am independent and self-motivated. No one tells me when to do my work; I am responsible for getting it done and complete my work on my own. I find the motivation and need within myself to see the importance of getting my work done. These strengths will be helpful to me as I become a college student, since I will away from home and will be responsible for doing my work. I will already be accustomed to this situation and will be self-motivated to get the work done. I, also, find that I am a diligent worker. I will continue to work until I get the job done. I never see something through only half way. This is a beneficial quality because I will find the need to do all my work the best I can. I won't give up when a class is hard; I'll see it through and do the best I can. Despite my strengths as a student, I do have faults as well. I can become frustrated when I don't understand something right away. When I don't understand something in a subject I tend to want to give up on that section rather than struggle to understand it. I try to work hard to avoid this, by going to get help whether from another student or the teacher and pushing myself to understand. This weakness can be detrimental to by learning because I will wish to ignore one section of a subject. Another weakness I find that I have is that I can become wrapped up in what my friends and others are doing, and can begin to neglect my work as a student. Yet, I feel that this will correct itself in college even more because I have worked too hard to get to a respected college that I would not throw that away. While many students in college have a propensity toward their friends and less toward their work, I feel that I will respond in a different manner. I have many dreams for my future, and I will have to work diligently to get there, and I know that I will do so.
College is a very important next step to me in the following of my dreams. Although this step is faced with some fear, I know that I shall grow and gain strength from it. I have only to better myself through the experience, so I reach for it with open arms and a hopeful grasp, for the next challenge is just around the corner.