The College Essay: Still Skeptical?

In the last post I tried to convince you that not editing your child's college essay is an act of generosity. You want to be useful in the college application process, you heard me out, but maybe you're still feeling skeptical. After all, I told you a college essay has no introduction. What kind of writing teacher advocates for an essay with no introduction? This one. And here's why.


Most students apply to college using the online Common Application. They are given 650 words for the essay portion. 650 words at which point the electronic submission box cuts off the essay on the reader's end. For perspective, 650 words double spaced is the equivalent of 6-7 medium length paragraphs or a page and a half of text. Total.


A page and a half.


In which to give an admissions counselor insight into who the student really is, what they value, what they love, how they think, and how they might contribute in a large group setting. It isn't much time. Hence, no introduction. There are no words to waste.


In the literary world we call this technique in medias res. If you watch action movies, particularly those featuring James Bond or Indiana Jones, you know its effectiveness well. The viewer enters mid-scene with no explanation of who the characters are, the action is already happening in an unnamed place and time and we can't help but glue our eyes to the screen. We want to stay with the storytellers only to later on be provided context and decipher the scene's ultimate meaning for the plot and character.


One of the reasons our kids struggle with the college essay is that for the last three years of high school we've been teaching them to have an academic introduction not start in medias res. We've also taught them not to write in first person. And, we've largely steered them away from developing action, instead focusing on condensed ideas and broad generalizations.


The college essay requires just the opposite.


Students sometimes struggle because they have not practiced this kind of writing often, not for many years. This college essay writing, to be compelling, to have voice, to capture the attention of an admissions officer, must be centered on the I, be action driven, specific, describe events that do not span large amounts of time, and avoid generalized conclusions, platitudes, and preachings.


Part of the job in getting students ready to write about themselves in this way is to reacquaint them with themselves, with the I. Great teachers and consultants know how to do this and they help the writer tremendously.


Then we have to reacquaint them with their histories, their personal treasure trove of life stories. And convince them that at 17 years old, they actually have a meaningful, ripe, wealth of story waiting to be told. Because they do.


I never fail to learn something amazing about a student in the drafting process. I also never fail to discover my own respect and empathy for the student. Every time.


Finally, we guide them through how to best illustrate that self, those values and traits, through a narrative story that showcases what they want the college or university to know about them. They become real to the reader, not just ink on a page.


That's how a great college essay works.


And, guess what?


There's no traditional conclusion, either.


I know. Mind blown.


No introduction, no conclusion, and no more than 650 words.


It's easier than you think.



In part 3 I'll be dishing out a few more truths and tips. Stay tuned.