College Application Essays

How to Stay On Top of the Heap

For some reason, “top students”–aka high achievers, go-getters, A-types, test-takers, straight-A students, you know who you are!–often have the hardest time writing these essays. At least really good ones.

Don’t get me wrong. These students are the ones who know to start early on their essays, and put a lot of effort into them. Their writing is usually technically “clean” of errors, and they probably would get an “A” from their English teachers. The problem is many of their essays are either on the dull side, or come across as trying too hard to impress or make them sound a bit full of themselves. This is not good!

Here are some of the reasons for this top student=bad essay paradox:

1. “Top” students often have a hard time trusting that a casual, narrative style produces an engaging, powerful essay. Instead, they stick to a formal, academic style (like the 5-paragraph essay); use too many long words; downshift into the passive voice; write overly long, descriptive sentences; cram in the adverbs. Many students (not just these “top” ones) often break into the dreaded English-ese (See my attempt at a definition below.). Take a writing Chill Pill to strike a more conversational tone and find your true writing voice.

2. Many don’t trust the idea of telling little stories. I think they find stories too simplistic or juvenile, something they have outgrown. They want to sound like adults, not kids. The truth is that stories are what real writers use the most. Stories, or anecdotes, are one of the most powerful ways to grab readers and get them to care about what we have to say. (Learn the difference between a story and an anecdote.)

3. Some don’t believe that writing about a “mundane” or everyday topic, as opposed to one that sounds impressive, usually results in more powerful essays. Writing about “I Make a Mean Grilled Cheese Sandwich” or “I’m a Karaoke Queen” is a lot more interesting than “How I Helped Orphans in China” or “The Time We Won the State Championship.” Which would you rather read?

4. Many top students have so many impressive accomplishments that it’s hard not to want to showcase them all. They go too general trying to include all their accomplishments instead of focusing in on one, and developing an essay around that single event or moment.

5. These “top” students feel so much pressure–the competition to get into these uber schools is insane–that it’s even harder for them to loosen up. The competition is not in their heads. I’ve been told that these essays assume more importance in the admission process at the more competitive schools since so many applicants have perfect scores, grades and extracurriculars. What else do admissions folks have to go on when everyone is near-perfect on paper? These students need to do their best to not let that pressure tighten up their writing and find the courage to pick topics that reveal their unique qualities instead of just their “impressive” ones.

Perhaps the main challenge for “top” students is that a lot of my advice feels counter-intuitive to them. If they don’t believe me, I would just suggest that they read lots of sample essays and see if they change their opinions on what makes the best essays. Learn to trust what essays you love the best, and emulate the style, topics, structure and tone of that type of writing.

English-ese: This is a word I just made up to define that bizarre “language” that students (and a lot of adults) use because they think that’s what readers (their English teachers, parents, bosses…) want and what makes them sound smart. I’m sure you would recognize it if you read or heard it. Here’s an example: “As the cacophony of sounds from the child’s crying wafted into my ears, I felt that my depiction of a clown was an injudicious  idea. My reaction sprouted from my ability to be sensitive, and as my mind told me I had upset the child, I apologetically took my exit from the room.” (Re-write in plain English: “When I heard the child crying, I realized my clown act was a bad idea. My only choice was to leave the room.”) This is an exaggeration, but don’t you recognize that sluggish, smug tone? Maybe people like it because it sounds intellectual and ponderous, as if you were talking from an oversized armchair smoking a pipe. But doesn’t listening to those types of pompous blowhards bore you to death? (That’s how college admissions folks feel when they have to read stiff, over-written essays!)

So why do we shift into the passive voice/tense to make ourselves sound more important? What’s with forcing in “big” words where shorter words work just as well or better? And where do we find all those adverbs? Yikes! (Of course, we are all guilty at times of these mistakes and overwriting, but many of my “top” students not only pack their essays with these blunders, they sometimes fight to hang onto them even when someone (me) tells them (nicely) to knock it off. At this point, if you had English teachers who praised this type of writing, it might be a hard habit to kick. When you find yourself slipping into that voice that tries to sound impressive, just give yourself a mental slap and command yourself to “Just say it.” Another trick is to ask yourself: Would you ever really talk like that? If not, don’t write like that either.


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